The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Dec., 2000/Jan., 2001.

Mad Cows are Comin’ to Get You

Today, Europeans are terrified to sink their teeth into a thick, juicy, steak. The reason: they have lost all confidence in the safety of their beef after it was recently discovered that an alarming number of cows in continental Europe are dying from Mad Cow disease. Mad Cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a brain wasting disease that turns normal brains into a ‘spongiform’, hole-riddled mush. Mad Cow disease became a serious problem in England in the late 1980’s. Since then, many people in England have died from it after eating beef from BSE infected cows. The incubation period for the onset of the disease in humans is believed to be 10 to 20 years and it is currently estimated that in the millions of people may die from the disease in the future.

How did this disease come about? It arose from a greedy capitalist system of industrial meat production. For some time now, large portions of slaughtered animals, such as intestines and their fecal contents, heads, hooves, horns, bones and blood are ground up and steam cooked in rendering plants and then turned into a brown powder that is added to livestock feed. Also welcomed at rendering plants are diseased livestock, road kill and euthanized pets. The brown powder is referred to as ‘protein concentrate’ in the cattle industry. The spur for turning cattle and other herbivorous livestock into cannibals has been the pursuit of the fast buck: the rendering industry in the U$ is a lucrative $ 2.4 billion industry. Pursuit of the fast buck has also led to the mixing of animal excrement with livestock feed as a way to profitably dispose of more than a million ton of animal waste annually. The E. Coli bacteria, which is linked to several thousand deaths a year in the U$, originates from the fecal contamination of food.

In Britain, among the animals rendered and fed to cows were sheep. But British sheep for a long time suffered from a disease similar to Mad Cow disease called ‘scrapie’. It is now believed that the infectious agents in sheep carcasses survived the rendering procedure and subsequently infected cows fed with the rendered meat. The Briti$h government was slow to act once cows exhibited a scrapie-like (i.e. Mad Cow) disease and insisted that the disease would not transmit to humans. We now know that Mad Cow disease does transmit to humans and the incompetence and cover-ups of the British government has probably led to a situation where millions of people have been exposed to the disease.

In 1997, the FDA banned the feeding of ruminants to ruminants in response to the events in Britain. Nevertheless, ruminants are still fed ground-up horses, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens and turkeys as well as the blood and fecal material of their own specie. Although the U$ sheep population does not have a history of scrapie, deer and elk in western states exhibit epidemic levels of a form of scrapie. Two young hunters under 30 recently came down with the human form of Mad Cow disease there, probably from the eating of these animals. It is feared that the lax FDA regulations may lead to a serious Mad Cow problem in the US as well. A possible scenario is that contaminated deer or elk may end up in rendering plants that produce feed for pigs. Pig remains may then be rendered as ‘protein powder’ that can legally be fed to cows. Although no cases of Mad Cow disease have been reported in cows in the US, there is some uncertainty as to whether or not US cattle have escaped the fate of their British counterparts. US cows are typically slaughtered at a much younger age than in Europe, and it is possible that if infected, they will not exhibit any symptoms before being slaughtered due to the long incubation time for Mad Cow disease to manifest itself.

In Europe, the Mad Cow crisis is transforming many people into unwilling vegetarians. The Thistle argues that there are many more compelling reasons other than fear and terror for considering a vegetarian lifestyle. There are three major arguments for a vegetarian diet:

(i) environmental reasons
(ii) health reasons
(iii) out of respect for fellow species.
Let us consider each argument in more detail.

Environmental effects of meat production

Howard Lyman, a fourth generation cattle rancher turned vegetarian, contends that you can’t be an environmentalist and eat meat at the same time. The environmental costs associated with a meat-intensive diet are enormous. For example, it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Currently 80 % of U$ grain production is fed to cattle. 85% of all U$ agricultural land is used in the production of animal foods. Significantly less resources could be used to sustain a vegetarian population. According to Lyman, in ‘Mad Cowboy’, “... an acre of fertile land can produce forty thousand pounds of potatoes, thirty thousand pounds of carrots, fifty thousand pounds of tomatoes, or two hundred fifty pounds of beef ... “. Land used to produce food for animals could otherwise remain wild, in the form of for example natural forests, which with its wide diversity of species would help contribute to a more sustainable environment.

The effects of over farming, currently done with chemical intensive methods, results in a loss of soil productivity through mineral depletion and erosion. It also leads to the release of large quantities of toxins into the environment. The thresholds placed on the quantity of pesticides used on crops fed to livestock are significantly larger than those for crops destined to humans. This contributes to water pollution due to pesticide runoff. Most lakes, rivers and coastal areas are contaminated with unhealthy levels of toxic chemicals, including DDT, which was banned more than 25 years ago. Pollution is not just limited to the application of dangerous chemicals characteristic of modern farming, but also from the production of the chemicals. During the production of chemical fertilizers, nitrous oxides are emitted which contribute to global warming. Other contributors to global warming are the cattle themselves. The 1.3 billion head of cattle on this planet emit 150 trillion quarts of methane which is the second largest contributor after carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect.

Much of the clearing and burning of forests in the world today is to make room for cattle. The burning of the earth’s biomass accounts for one third of the annual increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The clearing of large portions of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil through forest fires is a major contributor in this respect. 70% of the clearing of the Amazon is for cattle pasture. Rain forest topsoil rarely sustains grass for cattle for more than a few years and rapidly turns into desert. It is estimated that for every hamburger exported from Brazil fifty-five square feet of rain forest must be cleared. Often in developing countries, cattle whose meat is destined for export, are fattened up while much of the local population are denied access to resources to feed themselves.

Industrial meat production consumes an astounding amount of water as well. Approximately 70% of the water used in the eleven western states of the U$ is used for the production of animal food. According to Lynn Jacobs in ‘Waste of the West’, “...Most of California’s share of Colorado River water doesn’t get to Los Angeles swimming pools but to irrigated pastures and cropland for cattle” while “ 97.5% of Montana’s water use [is] for some form of livestock production”. The amount of water needed to produce ten pounds of steak equals the average annual water usage of a household of four.

Meat consumption and health

Most people are aware that red meat contains high concentrations of saturated fat and cholesterol. It is also well known that excess consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol leads to clogging of the arteries, causing atherosclerosis, the major factor in heart disease. Few, however, realize that chicken and fish have comparable levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. A wealth of medical studies has shown that the consumption of meat products is the primary cause of atherosclerosis in nonsmokers. One half of all Americans will die from some form of cardiovascular disease making meat consumption the number one killer in the US.

Setting aside the inimical effects of saturated fat and cholesterol, a meat-based diet is also a superb way of accumulating countless toxins. Most meat in the U$ is contaminated with dioxins (which are related to agent orange) and DDT. Crops fed to livestock have much higher levels of pesticide residues on them than crops fed to humans. Pesticides and toxins collect in fat. So when a red-blooded Amerikan, for example, sinks his teeth into a side of beef that was hacked off of Bessie the cow, he is consuming the toxins that Bessie accumulated in her fat over her life-time. But now-a-days, Bessie is not just eating crops with high pesticide residues, but also other rendered animals that have been accumulating toxins themselves. Livestock in the U$ are also regularly injected with growth hormones that are banned in the European Union. Furthermore, most livestock in the U$ receive daily doses of antibiotics.

While fish are typically not fed chemically produced crops and typically are not physically injected with hormones or antibiotics, they are superb sponges for toxins and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, pesticides and PCB. Municipal wastes and agricultural chemicals that are flushed into our waters become absorbed in the tissue of fish and shellfish. A consumer report study found PCB’s in 43% of salmon and 25% swordfish. The study also found that catfish had high levels of DDT, clams had high levels of lead and 90% of swordfish contained mercury.

Meat production and the treatment of animals

Whether or not it is morally wrong to kill other animals, is a thorny philosophical question that this thistle is not going to handle here. It is clear to the Thistle though that a system that mass-produces billions of animals, under extremely bad conditions, and for the purpose of systematic slaughter is a form of evil. Especially chickens are badly treated. Chickens are raised in cages that barely allow the chickens to move. A five-pound bird get only 0.8 sq. ft. of floor space. Cages are stacked on top of each other and chickens are often drenched in fecal material of other chickens. Birds subjected to forced rapid growth induced by antibiotics, genetic selection and growth hormones often suffer from skeletal disorders in which bones develop fractures and fissures.

The Thistle believes that eating meat is not inherently bad, and we respect the long held traditions of meat diets of more or less sustainable cultures such as Native Americans. The Thistle does however, harshly condemn a system of hyper-industrial meat production that is non-sustainable, causes enormous environmental devastation and results in the massive poisoning of people with countless carcinogens. The lack of respect exhibited towards livestock in the current system of meat production is unacceptable in a humane society and is a symptom of an industry that does not value life but is instead blinded by dollar signs in its pursuit of ever more power.

Much of this article is based on the recent book “Mad Cowboy” by Howard Lyman.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 3: Dec., 2000/Jan., 2001.