Table of Contents

Learning From a Disease-filled Past

June 24, 2021

How factory farming worsens the spread of diseases such as mad cow.

Corporate greed allowed the long and painful deaths of hundreds, and we have not yet emerged from the shadows…

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the virus was estimated to have come from a wet market in Wuhan, China. Many Americans criticized the consumption of wild animals such as pangolins, but this sentiment didn’t extend to the standard American diet. Many people continued consuming cows and other animals that have also been linked to outbreaks of disease. One such disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease.

In late 1984, cases of BSE began springing up across cattle farms in the United Kingdom. Cattle presented with aggression and loss of coordination and also displayed head tremors. BSE is caused by prions, misshapen proteins that can cause the denaturation of surrounding proteins. These proteins can form chains and plaques that cause necrosis, producing holes in brain tissue. The practice of feeding meat and bone meal (feed made of ground-up cattle) to cattle is thought to have spread the illness.

Although a committee was established to research BSE, and high-risk offal (organs like nervous tissue) were banned for human consumption, the government only offered 50% compensation to farmers to slaughter BSE-infected cattle, failing to completely incentivize the extermination of diseased cattle. The consumption of beef also continued to be promoted by figures like British agriculture minister John Gummer. The government operated under the assumption that, like scrapie (a disease that caused neurodegeneration in sheep), BSE could not cross the species barrier to humans. The government also sought to protect the beef industry, as plummeting beef sales would be dire for the economy.

In 1990, a cat developed similar symptoms to those caused by BSE, casting doubt on the idea that BSE could only be transmitted between cattle. Following the incident, the government continued assuring the public that BSE could not infect humans, and Gummer even fed his daughter a beef burger on television. By 1993, there were 100,000 confirmed BSE cases, and two years later it jumped to humans.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) is a sporadic disease thought to be caused by prions and, like BSE, causes neurodegeneration that is ultimately fatal. Before the BSE epidemic, CJD usually only affected the elderly. However, a 19-year-old who’d experienced symptoms like those of CJD died in 1995, and it was determined that he’d been affected by a variant of CJD (vCJD). Within a year, seven more cases of vCJD followed, most of which were reported in young people. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) also revealed that some slaughterhouses had spinal cord tissue mixed in with dressed carcasses, allowing potentially BSE-infected nervous tissue to enter the human food chain.

Corporate greed allowed the long and painful deaths of hundreds, and we have not yet emerged from the shadows of vCJD. While cannibalizing cows may now be a less common practice, industrialized agriculture remains a great danger to public health. The unsanitary conditions on factory farms and the industry’s pursuit of profit now pushes the excessive use of antibiotics in livestock. This practice propels bacteria’s evolution, producing superbugs that are immune to many of the medications we rely on. There are already tens of thousands of deaths caused by antibiotic resistance each year in the United States alone. This number will only rise as factory farms continue to operate. From BSE to COVID-19, we’ll continue to suffer outbreaks of zoonotic disease until we are willing to change how we eat.

Olivia Zheng is a student in New York City and FFAC Mentee.