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In the face of American pets dying due to tainted pet food from China, the USDA has quietly allowed chicken processed in China to be put into human food without labeling it. Consider that when you buy any canned or processed chicken product. For more information, read this post on NPR's The Salt blog: Was Your Chicken Nugget Made In China? It'll Soon Be Hard To Know.
Prions are unique single strands of DNA that have no cell. Their life cycle is somewhat analogous to viruses in that they can infect a host and use the hostís cellular machinery to replicate more prions. In humans this infection is called Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease and Kuru; in cattle it is Mad Cow Disease (MCD) aka Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE); in sheep it is Scrapie; and in Deer and Elk it is Chronic Wasting Disease. These are lethal diseases (usually less than one year from onset of symptoms to death) without any known cure. They cause progressive deterioration of neurologic function, manifesting as altered thought processes (progressive dementia) and deteriorating motor function (uncontrollable spastic muscle movements). Some have argued that these are all different diseases, however, it has been shown that consumption of infected material from one species by another can produce at least an identical appearing disease. Until it is proven otherwise, the only safe assumption should be that it is the same infectious prion, and variations in onset of symptoms are simply the result of different incubation times in different species, or clinically insignificant mutations of the same prion. Some articles have suggested that prions might survive cosmic radiation and theoretically might even be a thing that could seed primordial planets with DNA to eventually contribute to the production of multicellular organisms.
It appears the primary way a host contracts the disease is by eating it. There have also been reports of contracting it through corneal transplants and contaminated medical instruments (implanted brain electrodes). If there are other modes of infection, those have not been widely publicized. In the infected host, the prions concentrate in the Central Nervous System, and have also been identified in placental fluids (Amniotic Fluid), and some sources suggest potentially, in some species, some of the leg muscles. There is no known way to process infected meat that will destroy the prions and still have the meat usable as a food source. Burning or burying an infected carcass has not been proven to contain or destroy the infectious material. The amount of infectious material that must be consumed in order to result in the disease has not been publicized, if it is even known. There is a suggestion that butchering an infected animal such that there is no spillage of Cerebral Spinal Fluid, or Placental Fluid, might contain the infectious material, and maybe render the meat safe to eat. It is interesting that Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (CJD) was first identified in a subset of Orthodox Jews who practice Kosher Butchering, which requires that there is no spillage of Cerebral Spinal fluid, and no butchering of pregnant animals or any that are obviously sick.
The practice of feeding animal parts to livestock carries with it the risk of spreading the disease. In America, this has been common practice. Offal from slaughterhouses, and animals considered unfit for human consumption have been processed into protein pellets, which are then mixed with other feeds for a multitude of species. If an infected animal is used in such a fashion, the risk of spread of the disease is potentially logarithmic, (it could spread really really fast). Animal parts not used for the production of pelletized feed are typically composted and sold as organic fertilizer. It has not been publicized whether or not it has been studied if use of such organic matter might infect vegetables grown in it. If it can, then hopefully it would only be a topical contamination, since plants do not have a central nervous system. By potentially being spread undetected in the food supply, the prion-based diseases have a far worse potential for devastating the human population than HIV and Tobacco combined.
In humans Kuru was probably the same or related prion-based disease spread by cannibalism in the Fore tribes of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. In that case, the disease seemed to be more common among those who ate specifically the brains, rather than the flesh of victims, despite using communal cooking vessels. On a pathologic standpoint, the only difference between Kuru and Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (CJD) was the primary location of the main infection within the brain (Robbins, Cotran, Kumar; Pathologic Basis of Disease). Patients with Kuru as opposed to CJD had earlier motor problems and later dementia, but still ultimately suffered the same symptoms and died at similar times. Studies have shown also that CJD is transmissible to Chimpanzees, Monkeys, Domestic Cats, Guinea Pigs and possibly even Mice (Cecil Textbook of Medicine).
Cattle and sheep are known potential livestock vectors to humans. There have been reports in goats as well. Depending upon whom you believe, most other common livestock have probably not yet been adequately studied with regard to their potential to either contract and/or harbor the disease. The prion diseases have also already been identified in the Eastern Grey Squirrel, also the Rocky Mountain Elk and Muledeer, and the Plains and Northern States Whitetail Deer (CWD in deer and elk), and Mink (Transmissible Encephalopathy or Unconventional Agent Spongiform Encephalitis). Rather than all of them suddenly and simultaneously being primary natural wild vectors for these diseases, especially since they have only been recently identified as symptomatic, they are most likely all the victims of a common source. One thing that all these wild species have in common is they all raid cattle feedlots, or in the case of mink, eat things that do. Infected animal parts most likely have been making their way into the feed for other livestock, which in turn eat the feed and get infected. As a farmer, I can tell you, it can be difficult to find livestock feed that has not already had animal protein added to the feed in pelletized form. Those of us who avoid the issue will only get whole grains from a mill and not even go to a livestock feed store. As a physician, I can tell you what should be inherently obvious, that you canít catch a disease if you are never exposed to it. If an animal is allowed adequate space on a closed pasture, and only fed hay and grains, there should be no risk of them contracting a prion disease. They may not grow as fast as they would with supplemental protein feed, but ultimately the amount of food they provide us is the same, just a little longer time to obtain it. That is part of the reason we raise and process our own meat.
Obviously medical science does not yet know everything there is to know about the prion diseases. Theoretically, livestock that never eat infected feed should never be able to acquire the disease, and so meat from uninfected animals should be safe from prions, regardless of the butchering method used, provided the meat was not infected at the processors with equipment previously used on an infected animal. Neurosurgeons will tell you that any surgical instruments used on a patient with Creutzfeld-Jacob must be destroyed; they can not be resterilized.
Flaws in Governmental Strategies
As is always the case, politicians around the globe, who have no concept of the problems they are trying to legislate, are jumping on a bandwagon in a haphazard way. They donít understand the basic science, and they are only interested in the next yearís campaign ads, not a true long-term solution. There will always be criminals who wonít follow the rules. Thatís what makes them criminals, by definition. Adding more regulations to the majority of law abiding honest farmers will not stop those who would wittingly risk infecting hundreds or thousands of others for the sake of losing a profit from a single sick animal. The health and meat inspection laws, already on the books, if they were actually followed, are more than adequate.
Some goats and sheep have been shown to have a natural resistance to the disease, identifiable on a genetic blood test. In England they are outlawing production of sheep that do not carry this gene. By selecting for this one trait, who knows what other disease resistances they might be selecting against, perhaps something yet unidentified that may be worse? To eliminate all members of a species based on a single criterion is at best a very shortsighted idea. Although they have shown that it is unlikely for a sheep possessing this gene to contract the disease, they have not shown whether or not it could still be a non-symptomatic vector for human or other species contagion.
Some American Soay Sheep do possess this genetic marker, but on a percentage basis, very few have been tested. Therefore, there is not yet a known percentage that carries this trait. Also, some breeds have shown a statistical lack of infection despite not having the genetic marker. As of the time of writing this page, Iíve not yet heard of any Soay Sheep contracting Scrapie, and so far, my suspicion is that that may have more to do with how they are raised rather than necessarily possessing specific genetic resistance. One of this breedís strengths is that they do well on forage, and so their owners generally donít purchase commercial feed for them, and as I mentioned before, you canít catch a disease that you are never exposed to.
The Bush administration has recently enacted first the Scrapie Program, and now the NAIS, or National Animal Identification System. The administration is touting this as something to be done "for the public health". According to a letter I received in January of 2006, from Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, this is specifically an attempt to control Mad Cow Disease and they have already spent 33 Million dollars on the NAIS. It is a project that will at best fail, and more likely will worsen the problem. Surprisingly, despite Kentucky being primarily an agricultural state, our current Senators, Bunning and McConnell both have refused to assist attempts at blocking NAIS in Kentucky because they personally support it (according to letters I have received from both). Apparently their allegience to the administration is more than their allegience to the people who voted them into office. I encourage all Kentuckians to remember that when election time rolls around. NAIS is being fought. Some states have banned it thanks to legislators that have listened to their consituents. If you want to learn more how to block this insanity in your state, go to NoNais.org.
Although right now it is only voluntary, according to Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky; according to government websites it is scheduled to become mandatory. Some of the requirements of the NAIS include tagging all animals and providing documentation of any animals that die on the farm, irrespective of cause or species. On the surface, one might think this is a good idea and so (just as all the government officials Iíve written to have) dismiss out of hand the concerns of both farmers and physicians. In practice, the policies that have already been enacted and additional ones that are slated to take effect, are a danger to this nation; partly because it simply will not have the proposed effect, and partly because it will detract interest from the real issues. As of yet, I have not seen reports of this problem making it into the mainstream media. In fact, it almost appears as if the lack of reports have to do with some form of censorship.
A Brief History Livestock in the USA:
In the USA, compared to a century ago, full time family farms are almost extinct. Homesteaders and small-scale farmers usually have some type of day-job, and do farming in the evenings and on weekends. The rules of the NAIS are so onerous that many farmers will not have the time or ability to comply, and some will simply quit farming. The result will likely be an ever-increasing dependence on the corporate farms. Even farmers who only work toward self-sufficiency and do not sell meat to the open market will be required to comply.
Genetic variability is critical for a speciesí survival. It helps to ensure that at least some of a species survives a given disease and/or climate catastrophe. In the USA, small-scale farms primarily maintain the genetic diversity of livestock. The part-time farmers and family farms are each breeding their livestock for their own particular circumstances. Organic farmers and those who believe in free-range and wild-flock systems are often even allowing the animals to determine on their own, who is most fit to breed, the way nature intended. The collective group of small-scale farms provides the widest genetic variability, because of this system.
The agri-business or corporate farms operate on a system that demands homogeneity. They want animals that will reach a particular size, at a certain age, given a predetermined amount of feed, so they will fit into standardized packages for the consumer. Although it is mainly a result of inbreeding and not cellular manipulation, the livestock from corporate farms are, by and large, clones. What this means is they have the same immune system. A disease, like a bad flu virus, that potentially will kill one animal has a significant risk of wiping out the entire herd. Obviously, on a large scale, without genetic diversity, this has the potential to result in sudden famine.
A Brief History of Slaughtering in the USA
Unless one does their own butchering, or goes to a butcher who follows Kosher Butchering, the meat one buys at the grocery store will have been obtained in the "standard fashion". At slaughtering houses, the animals are penned together, usually by species, for hours to days, and then run through a squeeze chute, to get them into single file. In what is essentially a conveyor belt fashion they are killed and processed. The "standard method" to kill an animal is with use of an instrument called a "bolt". It is basically a hand guided retractable metal spike that is shot into the animalís skull to kill and or stun it, and then it is strung up to be bled, skinned and gutted. At some point after that, they are sawed in half, down the spine. Obviously, any infected animal butchered in such a fashion will spill cerebral spinal fluid and other bits of the central nervous system all over the place as a result of the bolt and the saw. As opposed to in a surgical suite, where instruments used on a patient with a prion disease may never be used on another patient, at a slaughterhouse the same "bolt" is used on thousands of animals, as are the same saw blades. Since we donít know the volume of infectious material it takes to cause contagion, we donít know how much more meat will be contaminated when it is processed with that same equipment after butchering one infected animal.
On the surface, someone unfamiliar with animal husbandry might think it is no big deal to tag an animal. These people have never had to care for someone who has been mauled by a pig, or trampled by cattle. Each interaction a farmer has with "our dinner" has the potential of serious injury. For a small farm, since there arenít employees, disability of a single individual, because of injury caused by livestock, can mean the difference between keeping or losing the farm. Besides the time, labor, cost and risk for the farmer, there are also significant religious objections against tagging animals for Muslims and Orthodox Jews. An ear tag will not somehow magically protect an animal from the prion diseases, (Mad Cow, Scrapie, Chronic Wasting Disease etc.), which is the primary concern these regulations are supposed to address. If the concern is identifying the farm from which an infected animal came, the bills of sale at slaughterhouses and auction houses combined with the already legislated meat inspections are more than adequate.
Regarding the Record Keeping:
The paperwork required is absolutely ridiculous. Among other things, a farmer will be expected to fill out and file a death certificate for any and all animals on their farm. They even may be expected retroactively to have stored the carcass for an undisclosed period of time, and provide the carcasses for necropsy. Who is to pay for storage of the carcass or the necropsy is not provided. How much more bloating of the bureaucracy will be required to do all the surveillance of these forms, is also not provided. In the USA, there are billions of livestock animals. The sheer bulk of paperwork that will be the result is virtually a guarantee to make any important information get lost in the shuffle. This is all a lot of make-work for people who donít have the time, not to mention the training to properly assess a cause of death of an animal. When one takes into account that the incubation period for the prion diseases might be on the order of twenty years or more in humans, it should be blatantly obvious that even with flawless record keeping, no amount of the proposed mountains of paperwork will be able to back track a source of infection.
Why NAIS will worsen things:
The NAIS will not control the spread of these diseases. In fact, they may help to facilitate their spread. When followed to the letter, they simply ensure that an infected animal will be slaughtered and put into the nationís food supply prior to the onset of symptoms. It will worsen the rate of attrition of small farms and therefore reduce the genetic diversity of livestock, thus increasing the eventual risk of famine.
These diseases could be minimized if they were approached from the medical standpoint of looking at them as infectious diseases and understanding their biology, instead of a politicized issue or a plank of a particular lobbyís agenda. The old regulations, if they were actually followed, would be adequate for identifying a symptomatic animal and quarantining the source. Prevention of an animal acquiring the disease could be radically improved by controlling the feed used. Prevention of a human acquiring the disease by consuming meat from an infected animal could be minimized by modified butchering practices.
Things that Require More Study for a Potential Solution:
Instituting an Orwellian bureaucracy is not the solution. In order to control the prion problem, one must address both minimizing risk of contagion and control of potentially infectious material. Minimizing contagion requires that no animal protein that is potentially infectious can be allowed into either the human or livestock food supply. Any animal to be butchered that is a species that might potentially harbor the disease should be butchered in a way so as to minimize risk of spilling infectious material (namely Cerebral Spinal Fluid). A scaled down version of Kosher Butchering practices should accomplish this. It would require minimal changes of equipment at slaughterhouses, but would require actual trained butchers, rather than minimum wage laborers.
Virtually every attempt to sterilize material infected with prions has failed. The Thermal Depolymerization Process as advanced by Brian Appel ("Anything into Oil", Discover, May 2003) appears to be a suggested technology which we currently have that might destroy prions on an economic scale. The result of this process is manufactured oil that can be mixed with or used in place of petroleum based oil as a fuel and lubricants. This needs to be tested further.
If it is shown that it does sterilize such infectious material, it could be a viable solution, not only for potential prion waste, but all medical waste, not to mention what goes into our landfills. If all infected carcasses and offal from slaughtered animals that were in any way suspicious were run through this process, it would sterilize the infectious waste, help protect our food supply, and at the same time help reduce our countryís dependence on foreign petroleum.
I've written to or emailed (or didn't need to to find their position since some have already published their views) most of the national presidential candidates and state politicians regarding their plan regarding NAIS. I grant that failure to reply isn't necessarily cause to say that someone is or is not in favor of something, however, if some can reply, why not others?
R Ky Senator Mitch McConell is in favor of NAIS
R Ky Senator Jim Bunning is in favor of NAIS
R Presidential Canditate Rudy Giuliani failed to reply
R Presidential Canditate John McCain failed to reply
D Presidential Canditate Barach Obama failed to reply
D Presidential Canditate John Edwards failed to reply
D Presidential Canditate Hilary Clinton failed to reply
R Presidential Canditate Ron Paul is against NAIS
It is now April 2008. The three remaining candidates of the Republican and Democratic Parties, Senators John McCain, Barach Obama, and Hillary Clinton still have failed to comment on any position regarding NAIS, and still have taken no visible steps to block it.
Prions and Politics Chapter 2
With the recent fluctuations of the global weather patterns in mind, most at least around here remember last yearís extreme weather pattern of flooding in parts of the deep south and drought across most of the eastern half of the US. That combined with the late hard frost resulted in failure of tree ripening fruit and of hay. The prices of fruits and vegetables went up according to the laws of Supply and Demand. The price of meats stayed stable or dropped as the cost to feed the animals skyrocketed and they were sold off for slaughter. If you donít remember it, ask any farmer.
On the news today, we are seeing food riots in foreign countries and rationing of Rice in America by the mega-food-retailers of Costco ô and Walmart ô. As petroleum prices rise and its supply dwindles more grain is being diverted to the production of fuel which in turn promises to result in higher prices for grains and animal feed so donít be surprised when the supply of meat drops and therefore the price of it goes up just like everything else.
A study of history shows that our strength as a nation is in a major way a direct result of the Industrial Revolution and the food abundance in the US. Before the Industrial Revolution a significant portion of the food grown in the US went toward feeding draft animals. In short, our Transportation System was closely tied to the Food Supply. During and following the Industrial Revolution, draft animals were replaced with tractors fueled by cheap petroleum. Transportation was no longer tied to the Food Supply such that all those crops that fed animals were now used to feed people. That significantly increased the food supply so that Americans could eat better and as a whole be healthier than competing nations.
Now with a reduced supply of petroleum, grains are being used to produce fuel in the form primarily of ethanol. We are returning to the pre-Industrial model of Food going to Transportation, only this time the demand by the Transportation System will be of a greater magnitude and the number of people to feed will also be vastly greater. America is already importing more than half of the food consumed. With a strong dollar, purchase of foreign food is cheap and therefore plentiful. However, the strength of the US dollar is at its lowest level in a long time. As the dollar goes down and the number of US farms goes down and the cost of fuel goes up we will be more at the mercy of foreign nations to feed Americans at an ever increasing cost.What if global warming is real, and the extreme weather patterns of last year repeat? Even if it is not real, if it happened once it will happen again. We could experience several years in a row of poor food production. Combine that with food going to fuel, more mouths to feed and a weaker dollar and you have a recipe for a famine in the US. It is not an impossibility. It has happened before during The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Ancient civilizations lived or died by their food supply. A starved army will fail against a well fed one. It is a fact of biology. We are no different. Any nation, to survive must be able to feed and clothe its citizens. That is itís first reason for existence. Anything that reduces a nationís ability to do that is a danger to it. The National Animal Identification System is just one more nail in the coffin lid. The corporate food conglomerates appear to have dictated policy to the major presidential candidates in order to squeeze out more of the small time producers whom they regard as defenseless competition. (Remember how the conglomerates are exempt from the NAIS regulations.)
One self sufficient farm can hopefully at least feed itself during a calamity. Get rid of overregulation like the NAIS and other onerous regulations like it and during a calamity there will be at least some food. Continue down this path, with no self sufficient farms, we are each year approaching a little closer to the Soviet era famines where food will not be accessible to all parts of the nation. Food will rot in shipping containers while some areas starve. Our technology and civilization will be worthless if there is nothing to eat.
The next thing that would likely happen is martial law and potentially the end of the American Republic that we all cherish. There is time to avert a death spiral. For the sake of America, Americans must have their basic liberties. Eating the food that you yourself produce is part of the rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Can you imagine what any of our founding fathers would have said or done to someone if they had suggested that people should not be allowed to grow their own food or sell some to a neighbor? They went to war for less and started a chain of events that brought down a superpower! We need to vote out of office any politician who would erode our basic liberties
C. George Kohrman MD and Farmer
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Unless otherwise noted, all text and photos on this site are copyrighted by George and Elaine Kohrman and may not be used without written permission.
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