In journalism, "Dog bites man" is considered an incident. However, "Man bites dog is news"! Something similar has been observed in the western food industry in the past two decades. It is vogue for man to eat animal flesh. It is also known that certain African and New Guinea tribes relish human hearts and brains. An even bizarre act of cannibalism occurred in the civilized world during World War II when Nazi officers ate cooked flesh of Jewish prisoners in one concentration camp! Perhaps less known to the public is that to accelerate weight gain in the shortest time possible, cows are fed cows! To maximise profits, after beef is packed, the cows' remains such as bones, horns and hooves are powdered and mixed with cattle feed. This gruesome practice prevailed till the late seventies and early eighties when nature struck with a vengeance.
In 1984, in the South Downs of England, a farmer named Peter Stent noted mysterious symptoms in one of his cows. These included drooling, arching back and repeated sideways waving of the head. The cow also became aggressive, would lose balance and began losing weight. Six weeks later she died. Prior to this, Stent noticed telltale symptoms in some of his other cows. From his farm's name, vets labelled the disease 'Pitsham Farm Syndrome.'
In 1992, in the coastal village of Caernarfon, north Wales, the father of 22-year old Alison Williams suddenly observed a change in her personality. She stopped attending college, stayed indoors all day, staring inanely out of the window for hours on end. By 1995, she became paranoid and lost bowel and bladder control. She soon became blind, slipped into coma and died. Medical authorities then scrambled to identify the cause of her illness.
After their findings they labelled the Pitsham Syndrome as `bovine spongiform encephalopathy' (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. It wiped out nearly 200,000 cows in England and Europe. Researchers named Alison Williams's illness as `variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease' (vCJD), the human variant of BSE, which claimed 94 lives. This resulted from eating infected beef. One theory attributes the cause of infection to "prions", which are neither bacteria nor virus, but rogue protein molecules. Nobody knows for certain where they originated. They are so resilient that strong acids and extreme temperatures fail to destroy them. The human immune system too is unable to combat them. Prions somehow eat up the brain, forming holes as in a sponge. Hence the name `spongiform'. Mad cow has so terrified the medical fraternity that Newsweek describes it as, "the creepiest in a family of disorders that can make Ebola look like chicken pox." BSE did mobilize the authorities, which banned contaminated beef byproducts for cows at home. Yet it allowed the meat industry to export byproducts of BSE infected cows as feed to over 80 countries for 8 years, from 1988 to 1996! The ramifications of this unethical and criminal practice was too horrifying to contemplate. Millions of consumers in Europe, Russia and south-east Asia ate cattle, pigs and chickens raised on this feed!
Not surprisingly, in 1994 BSE surfaced again in England killing many cows and humans. This finally forced the government to ban all meat-based cattle feed and spent millions on destroying cows. A monumental backlog still awaits disposal; 500,000 tons of ground-up cattle remain stored at 13 sites in England, awaiting incineration. Today an average of 30 new cases weekly are reported, down from over a 1000 in the early ' 90s.
As cited earlier, BSE arose from the unnatural practice of feeding cows to cows, to maximise production for fast financial returns. Another notorious practice by the meat industry is to use hormones to speed growth rate of livestock. This too entails grim side effects. In 1978, a horrified mother in Milan, Italy visited a physician with her 6-year-old son who was developing female characteristics. This did not shock the physician, for in recent months he had seen 1,100 such cases! He traced the cause to diethyl stilboestrol (DES), a powerful growth hormone which a greedy farmer used to fatten his veal calves. All the affected children had eaten meat of these animals. In 1979, a hospital in Puerto Rico witnessed the disorder in 8-year-old boys. Besides premature sexual development, DES induced premature aging in young children.
DES was first used in the ' 50s to promote fertility in women with reproductive failure, but was banned when side effects surfaced 29 years later. However meat producers in the US and Europe routinely use DES in livestock, otherwise they estimate a loss of $ 30 per cow and over $ 40 million per year.
Another disorder resulting from flouting nature's laws is illustrated by the Fore tribe of Papua, New Guinea. In the 1950s, Dr.Carleton Gajdusek encountered a peculiar disease among them. The Fore women and children suffered from 'Kuru', meaning shivering. The symptoms included unsteadiness, slurred speech, tremors and coma leading to death within 16 months. He discovered the cause to be diet-related. While the men ate tubers, beans and meat from forest game, the women and children ate their dead relatives! Specifically they ate only those women who died from Kuru and not those from dysentery or leprosy which they considered unclean. Richard Rhodes described this as "Deadly feasts" in his book.
When Gadjusek sent brain autopsy samples of the Kuru victims to his colleagues in the US, they reported holes known as vacuoles in the brain, similar to those who suffered from (CJD)! More disturbingly, researchers later discovered that eating such infected flesh was not the only method of transmission of such diseases.
In the 1960s endocrinologists discovered hormones in the pituitary gland of the brain. Of these, they extracted the human growth hormone (hGH), which could help dwarves reach normal height. Since 1963, researchers extracted hGH from human cadavers, treating 8,200 children over the next 20 years.
Everything seemed stable until 1984, when a worrisome effect surfaced. Normally CJD affected people over 50. However those children who received the growth hormone exhibited the disease in their 20s. This meant that the bug had tagged along with the hormone. In April 1985 authorities banned the practice of injecting the hormone. Yet 27,000 of world's children had already received it. In the US, new cases are still being recorded every year. This is the high tech 'civilized' equivalent of the Fore's deadly feasts.
After the BSE, CJD and hGH experiences, one assumes that man would have learnt his lesson; to respect nature by following its laws. However that was not to be.
Foot & Mouth Disease (FMD)
No sooner had the BSE terror subsided, when another plague struck the British countryside. Besides cows, it affected sheep, pigs and threatened wild animals in zoos and safari parks. On 20 February 2001, a vet inspector detected the first case of foot and mouth disease in a slaughterhouse in Essex. However, the outbreak is attributed to a pig farm in Northumberland, where swine were apparently fed swill made from waste food, which may have contained contaminated meat. The contagion is the O Pan Asia virus which causes blisters in the mouth and feet of animals. It does not kill them and they recover within a short period. However, they do lose weight and yield less milk. Though not a biological threat to humans, FMD has become a monumental economic disaster. The contagion has also spread to Ireland, the Netherlands and France.
Today's agri-business practices bent on high yields and cheap foods have forced mass culling of the infected and innocuous livestock! According to a British scientist, no country abroad will accept British meat if it might be infected with FMD. A loss of £8 million per week is estimated because of a ban on meat exports.
In the previous mass outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1967, only 2364 cases were confirmed, yet to stem the contagion, over 442,000 animals were slaughtered within a span of 6 months. In the present plague, 1448 cases have been detected from 20-2-2001 to 24-4-2001. This prompted a scientist to describe the slaughter as "a manic killing frenzy" on an apocalyptic scale; On June 12, the goverment's MAFF database, recorded a slaughter of 3,290,000 animals - 519,000 cattle 2,645,000 sheep, 124,000 pigs and 2000 goats. However according to The Times of June 11, the Government gave the official figure as 4.2 million, omitting 2 million lambs, calves and piglets. Whatever the age factor, the fact remains that a staggering 6.2 million have been slaughtered!
Compared to the killings, disposal of the carcasses has caused an even greater headache. Initially they were incinerated on pyres stretching up to 2 km, lighting up the British countryside for days on end. Public outcry regarding air pollution from dioxin forced the authorities to opt for burial in mass graves. Since the rate of culling outpaced burial, scores of carcasses bloated and burst after lying in the countryside for up to 2 weeks. The Times (UK) of 21 April, 2001 reported 174,660 carcasses lying across Devon.
Ironically this led to air stenched by rotting carcasses and groundwater contamination from the liquid leachate! Phenol based disinfectants to combat the outbreak also threatened wildlife, and fish in streams. Tourists who usually trekked through the countryside have been banned for fear of spreading the virus. The BBC estimated losses from rural tourism alone at £100 million a week.
Whatever the financial losses to industry, the draconian slaughter affected the general public on two levels. When humanitarians voiced concern over the method of culling, the authorities quickly pointed out that it was humane. However the facts sang a different story. Slaughtermen either used a single-shot handgun which fired a lead bullet in an animal head causing concussion, or a captive-bolt pistol whose bolt penetrated the skull. After withdrawing the bolt, the slaughtermen inserted a flexible rod or wire through the hole and macerated the brain and spinal cord! For dangerous livestock such as bulls, vets injected a sedative before culling. They used lethal injections for lambs and piglets.
The second effect directly concerns meat eaters. In a land raised on Beatrix Potter's animal stories, such news and gruesome images; of animals being killed and flung around, the piles of slaughtered lambs, pigs and burning cattle so upset children and adults, especially the aged, that thousands opted to stop eating meat. Singer Chrissie Hynde, a vegetarian, said it was good that people were finally seeing the reality of slaughter. A campaign group Viva, dressed in lamb costumes outside Liverpool Street station with banners saying, "If killing 'healthy' lambs upsets you don't eat them." The Vegetarian Society of UK reported being 'inundated' by calls from people who considered the FMD outbreak as "the final straw" and sought advice about a vegetarian diet. BBC News-on-line of 28 March 2001 reported, "Animal culls spark veggie surge!" About 5000 people per week in UK are becoming vegetarians. In 10 years the total number has doubled to 4 million.
Though the outbreaks of BSE and FMD have jolted many consumers into changing their diet habits, the meat industry will invariably continue its intensive practices for financial gain, with little regard for human health, animal welfare and the environment.
A story at home well illustrates the mentality of those at the industry's apex who wield ruthless power. Over the past quarter of a century, inhabitants of Padre, a village in the Kasaragod block of Kerala, south India, have suffered mutely. They have borne the brunt of the state government's aerial spraying of endosulfan on its cashew nut groves, located 1.5 km on nearby hills. The chemical leaches into a nearby stream, which is the only source of drinking water for the villagers. They suffer from a hideous array of disorders such as: cerebral palsy, mental illness and retardation, malformed limbs, epilepsy, congenital defects, skin and genital disorders, abortion, tuberculosis, cancer and suicide! By 20 January 2001, a local physician recorded 197 members in 123 families afflicted by one or more of these disorders. Besides human suffering, cows give birth to malformed calves. Many bird species and wildlife too have disappeared from the adjacent jungle. The state government vehemently refutes endosulfan as the culprit, claiming it is innocuous, despite the fact that it is strictly banned in many countries worldwide. The state further argues that failure to use endosulfan would result in a loss of Rs.20 million every season!
Despite awareness of the destructive consequences to himself and the environment, man continues his profit-before-safety practices, on his wanton march to sense gratification. Whether it is BSE, vCJD, FMD, AIDS, Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.Coli O157, usage of DES, GM foods, deforestation, groundwater depletion or human cloning, all are symptoms of a warped humanity; greed, taste and lust gone over the age. Man now has two options. Either he curbs the instincts to experience peace and harmony with himself and nature, or prepares himself for the next Doomsday scenario; when nature strikes back with another insidious bug from its inexhaustible storehouse.
As he sows so shall he reap.
1 Newsweek - March 12,2001 (USA)
2 TIME - March 12, 2001 (USA)
3 The Times - March 15, April 3, 24, June 11, 2001 (UK)
4 BBC News-on-line - March 28,2001 (UK)
5 Official Govt. website: www.maff.gov.uk
6 The Ecologist - May 2001 (UK)
7 Down To Earth - February 28, 2001 (New Delhi)
8 Unfit for Human Consumption - Richard Lacey, 1991 (UK)
9 Problems with Meat - John Scharffenberg, 1979 (USA)