How Now, Mad Cow?

Comment by Worldwatch Institute researchers, Brian Halweil and Dani Nierenberg on how globalization, economics and poor animal husbandry are responsible for our current animal-borne epidemics.

The spread of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth across Europe show that no country - including the United States - is immune to the threat of animal borne illnesses. Yet, in the U.S., industry and government officials are singing the same tune as British officials 15 years ago, when the British authorities consistently downplayed news of the emergence of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) or "quot;mad cow"quot; disease.

Globalized trade in goods and services, the movement of animals across borders, and the frequency of intercontinental airline travel means that no country is immune to mad cow or foot-and-mouth or any number of existing - or emerging - diseases. The recently completed Panamerican highway from Colombia to the United States virtually guarantees that foot-and-mouth - already a problem in South America - will make its way up to North America. A Brit with the foot-and-mouth virus hitchhiking on his shoes can board a plane in London and be on a Texas cattle farm in a matter of hours.

Since 1986, the year mad cow disease and its human version were detected in the UK, British meat has been shipped around the world. So have British feed products, which can harbor this poorly-understood illness that is fatal to humans. Mad cows have already shown up in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Ireland and Spain - a dozen countries in total. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared that all nations should consider themselves at risk, though many seem unprepared. A recent survey by U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that a frightening one in four American slaughterhouses and feed processing plants fail to comply with steps to prevent mad cow disease.

But simply worrying about the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth and mad cow doesn't really help us solve the problem, much less understand it. And to understand it you have to realize that mad cow and foot-and-mouth are related diseases. Not in any biological sense, but in terms of the economic environment that allows them to thrive.

The modern animal farm not only allows, but paves the way for the outbreak of disease. We cram thousands of genetically uniform animals into unhygienic warehouses, generating a virtual frat party for microbes. We recycle animal manure and slaughterhouse waste as feed. We process meat at break-neck speed in the presence of blood, feces, and other contagion. Long-distance transport of food creates endless opportunities for contamination.

The irony is that this model of food production - designed to put economic gain ahead of good animal health - doesn't make any economic sense in the long term. Mad cow alone has already cost Britain over $1 billion and sapped $5.6 million from EU coffers. The price tag for foot-and-mouth is likely to be equally devastating.

And these outbreaks represent just a glimpse of the full toll on society. The mountains of manure that factory farming generates foul our air and water, disrupting ecosystems and sickening rural communities. Antibiotic overuse in factory farms comes back to harm us in the form of newly drug-resistant microbes, including Salmonella, E. coli, and Camplyobacter. A recent study found that America's farm animals consume roughly 10 times as much antibiotics as the human population.

Still, industrial animal farming is spreading. It is the fastest growing form of animal production - responsible for nearly half of the world's meat, up from one-third in 1990. Though concentrated in North America and Europe, feedlots are popping up near urban centers in Brazil, the Philippines, China, India, and elsewhere in the developing world where demand for meat and animal products is soaring.

There is, of course, another way to produce meat, one which treats farms as living systems rather than assembly lines. It's no coincidence that mad cow has yet to be reported on organic farms throughout Europe which prohibit feeding of slaughterhouse waste, give animals access to the outdoors, and emphasize good animal health in general. In countries like Sweden, which have been able to prevent an outbreak with good animal husbandry, farmers have gained public trust and recaptured local markets. Healthy animals will also be the best defense against foot-and-mouth.

In Germany, the food scare has sparked an about-face on agricultural policy. After the first reports of mad cow, the prime minister replaced the agricultural minister with an environmentalist, and declared that agricultural policy and farm practices must resonate with environmental and public health goals. The European Union as a whole is posed for similar systematic reforms that reach beyond quick-fix solutions like animal quarantines and meat irradiation.

It's time American politicians - currently in denial- took the same path. We need reforms at the national level, but in the end, it's a global issue. Trade is global; disease is global, and protecting public health must become global too.

Written by Brian Halweil, a Research Associate and Dani Nierenberg, an Adjunct Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC - 2001/09/03. They focus on the social and ecological effects of how we produce food.

For further comment or more information, contact:

    Brian Halweil, Research Associate
    Weekdays: (202) 452-1999 x538
    Weekends: (202) 518-2525

    Leanne Mitchell, Public Relations Specialist
    Weekdays: (202) 452-1999 x527
    Weekends: (202) 234-2755


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