Skeptic » eSkeptic » January 8, 2004

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Crossing Over Crosses Over to the Other Side

The syndicated television series Crossing Over with John Edward has been cancelled! Will wonders never cease? (www.nypost.com/entertainment/44536.htm).

January 6, 2004—Universal has cancelled the syndicated version of “Crossing Over with John Edward” after three low-rated seasons. The show, hosted by renowned Long Island psychic John Edward, will wrap up its run at the end of this season. New episodes will continue to air until then. “We’re very proud that ‘Crossing Over’ has been renewed for three seasons without the benefit of having its own station group—not an easy task in today’s fragmented sales environment,” said Steve Rosenberg, president of Universal Domestic Television. “We knew ‘Crossing Over’ was special from the time it began on the SCI FI Channel … and the long waiting list for tickets told us there was an appetite for it.”

The Amazing Meeting

James “The Amazing” Randi’s big conference in Las Vegas is coming up next week (Jan. 15th—18th). He has one of the finest line-ups of magicians and skeptics in the history of the skeptical movement. Go to www.randi.org to check it out and sign up. With Penn & Teller, Lance Burton, Ian Rowland, Jamy Ian Swiss, Banachek, Jerry Andrus, and others, it is going to be a great weekend.

Newton and Androcles

Someone points out each year that I announce the celebration of Isaac Newton’s birthday on December 25 that there was a calendar change between then and now. To wit:

Although by the calendar in use at the time of his birth he was born on Christmas Day 1642, we give the date of 4 January 1643 in this biography which is the “corrected” Gregorian calendar date bringing it into line with our present calendar. (The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in England until 1752.) http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Newton.html

In my last eSkeptic I referenced Samson pulling the thorn out of the lion’s paw. I was wrong. It was Androcles. A reader sent this:

A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a Lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee, but finding that the Lion did not pursue him, he turned back and went up to him. As he came near, the Lion put out his paw, which was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled out the thorn and bound up the paw of the Lion, who was soon able to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the Lion took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat from which to live. But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the Lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the Lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days. The Emperor and all his Court came to see the spectacle, and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the Lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he recognized his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands like a friendly dog. The Emperor, surprised at this, summoned Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the slave was pardoned and freed, and the Lion let loose to his native forest. Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.


The Commandments:
as Practiced by Judge Roy Moore

from Mad Magazine (page 44, #437, January 2004).

  1. Thou shalt have no god before mine.
  2. Thou shalt not worship graven images—like the U.S. Constitution.
  3. Thou shalt take the Lord’s name and vainly attempt to use it to advance thine political career.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day—so you can watch me getting free publicity and denouncing my critics on all the Sunday morning talk shows.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother—but not necessarily thy Founding Fathers.
  6. Thou shalt not kill—except for the separation of church and state.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery—but thou may be unfaithfull to the principles thou swore to uphold as an officer of the court.
  8. Thou shalt not steal my two-and a half ton monument from the courthouse rotunda where I installed it in the dead of night.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor—unless your neighbor is a liberal, atheist, or fellow Alabama Supreme Court Justice.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. But exploiting thy religion to covet higher office is A-Okay.

In the following article, Sandy Szwarc discusses “mad cow disease.”

About the author: Sandy Szwarc, RN, BSN, CCP is a food and health writer and has been managing editor of national food and restaurant publications. She is also a culinary professional and cookbook author; and a registered nurse with over twenty years in critical-care nursing, emergency triage, and outreach education with a focus on nutrition and preventative health. She is a member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, American Council on Science and Health, American Dietetic Association—Food and Culinary Professionals, and International Association of Culinary Professionals. A regular contributor to Tech Central Station, she is increasingly involved in debunking junk science as it pertains to food and health.


Mad Cows and Irrational Hysterics:
Pseudoscience on the Farm

by Sandy Szwarc

Alfred Hitchcock knew a shadowy figure was far more terrifying than a well-lit known villain. Of late, there’s been an explosion of headlines and juicy stories about the shadowy figure of mad cow disease that capture attention with sensationalized “what-if?” scares of hidden dangers lurking in our beef. We can be assured of one thing when it comes to the safety of our food: hysteria will be inversely proportional to actual risks.

Cows Aren’t People

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease,” is a fatal disease in aged cows, according to the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). 1 Its victims are usually 3 to 6 years old—that’s old for cows, as those raised for meat are slaughtered young (under 24 months). BSE is one of several neurological degenerative diseases, like chronic wasting disease that occurs sporadically and spontaneously in wild ruminant animals. (Non-ruminant animals such as pigs and poultry don’t get the diseases). 2 Scrapies, the form endemic in sheep and goats, has been identified in Europe since the mid-18th century. 3

Despite news reports quick to place blame, scientific evidence is far from conclusive. Since BSE was first identified in 1986 on a dairy farm in England, the cause has not been pinpointed, according to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

What is known is that BSE is not contagious and cows cannot give it to each other or other animals just by living together. Nor can they give it to people—there’s never been a single case. Despite that fact, 4.5 million innocent healthy cows were destroyed in England during the peak of their mad cow hysteria, devastating beef and dairy farms and creating an environmental disaster in disposing of all those dead carcasses. Hopefully reason will prevail, as it has in Canada since their BSE case last May, and the unnecessary mass slaughter of healthy animals won’t be repeated.

If other cows with BSE are discovered in North America, as they likely will, it doesn’t mean safeguards have failed or that an epidemic is upon us. Unlike Englands despairing bout, the few cases of BSE in Canada, Japan, Spain, Italy and scattered around the globe have remained contained and harmless. England has had 90% of recorded BSE cases. Scientists believe it may have spread there because of an unusual scenario that’s since been corrected, dramatically curtailing the number of cases. Learning from Britain’s experience, precautions put in place elsewhere make the likelihood of a similar spread remote. 4

Most of Englands animal feed protein since the 1970s had been derived from bone-and-meat from ruminant animals which, it’s theorized, may have caused an unnatural spread of the disease agent, possibly from scrapie-infected sheep, into feed, or that it precipitated a deformity of prions (a natural protein in brains). The risk of scrapie contamination was higher in England, with 3.4 sheep per cattle compared to 0.08 here, but is unlikely here because the U.S. has had a scrapie control program in place since 1952. Unlike England, we’ve also always primarily used plant-based protein, such as corn and soybean, for cattle feed.

While the prion theory of transmission has not been firmly established by scientists, according to the USDA the risk materials have been determined to be the skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of cattle over 30 months of age and the small intestine of all cattle. 5 Since 1997 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the use of most mammalian protein (which includes risk material) in animal feeds given to all ruminants—making conventional and organic beef equally safe. 6

The American Feed Industry Association, which represents nearly 700 feed companies, called for the complete removal of ruminant-derived meat-and-bone meal from facilities that make cattle feed to prevent even accidental mixing of feed types, and established independent third-party certification programs to verify compliance. The National Renderers Association has followed suit.

As an added precaution, the U.S. has banned the importation of any ruminant animal or product from any country even suspected of being at risk for BSE, according to the U.S. HHS, FDA, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). 7 No beef has been imported into the U.S. from England since 1985. According to the National Cattlemen’s Association, a proactive, vigilant surveillance system also tests all cows older than 30 months or that appear sick or nonambulatory, and removes high risk materials, before processing. While some are calling for the testing of every cow to reassure consumers, that would conservatively cost hundreds of millions of dollars, crippling the low-margin $50 billion beef industry without giving much additional safety. As Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department’s chief veterinarian noted, the current surveillance system is designed to detect the disease if it exists in one in a million animals. The American Meat Institute (AMI) adds that existing BSE surveillance already exceeds international standards by more than 40 times. 8

More than five years ago the AMI also called upon its members to discontinue the use of air injection stunning, to avoid the possible contamination of meat with brain tissue. According to J. Patrick Boyle, AMI President and CEO, to their knowledge no such equipment is in use in American processing plants, nor is mechanically separated beef produced in the U.S., contrary to many fears being raised by activists.

Finally, to bolster consumer confidence in beef safety, the last week of 2003 the USDA announced new measures to protect cattle herds that went well beyond international standards. In addition to making mandatory changes in processing and increasing BSE surveillance, they called for the establishment of a national animal ID system. The USDA will also require that beef carcasses and beef products from animals undergoing BSE testing be withheld from the food supply, pending test results. This is a prudent measure, according to the AMI, and is already routine practice at many of the nation’s beef plants. All nonambulatory livestock have also been banned from the food supply, although the AMI notes that the majority, “if inspected and passed by a USDA veterinarian are safe for human consumption.”

Human Mad Cow?

Cows with BSE act like animals and people with other spongiform encephalopathies—they lose muscle control, waste away and die. According to the World Health Organization, Creutzfeld-Jacobs Disease (CJD), one of the human spongiform encephalopathies, occurs spontaneously in about one in a million people. 9 It appears to have a genetic basis 5 to 10% of the time, with a small percentage iatrogenic. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the APHIS, CJD is unrelated to mad cow, as evidenced by the fact it occurs in England about the same frequency as the rest of the world. And according to Konrad Eugster, MD, executive director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M University, CJD has been around a long, long time long before mad cow ever hit the news. 10

In light of British panic over mad cow, their Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has been closely studying and monitoring these diseases since 1990. On March 20, 1996, it noted 10 cases of human CJD that occurred in younger people and lasted longer than typically seen. Besides the fact that most variant-CJD victims had eaten beef at some time—although no one had eaten brain tissue and one of the ten patients had been a vegetarian since 1991—they could find no scientific evidence linking BSE and vCJD. While a few studies subsequently published in Nature reported an association between vCJD and BSE, it is far from conclusive and other researchers question the theory.

That hasn’t stopped vCJD from being labeled the human form of mad cow. A popular orthodoxy has evolved, fueled by media frenzy, that meat contaminated with the brain prions of mad cows could give people the disease. “It’s all been much ado about nothing,” said Scott C. Ratzan, director of the Emerson College/Tufts University School of Medicine Program in Health Communications and editor of the Journal of Health Communications. 11 “Based on available scientific evidence, we can be virtually certain that mad cow disease poses no threat to humans.”

No one has ever been able to establish that any vCJD victim has ever eaten beef from a diseased animal or that infected prions can cross the species barrier and cause disease in humans. In addition, there is no documented increase in cases in cultures where brains are a favorite dish. And, while the vCJD cases shortly after England’s BSE outbreak are pointed to as proof of an association, it’s hard to ignore that the already small numbers of cases are dropping, making groundless claims that the worst of the epidemic is yet to come. Other exposures don’t hold up, either, as there’s no higher incidence among farmers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers or others in greater contact with BSE or animal products.

Rather than being some exotic new prion disease, Alan Ebringer, a professor of immunology at King’s College, London, believes vCJD is the result of the body’s own immune response to a bacteria called Acinetobacter, making it another autoimmune disease with mechanisms already well-understood by science. 12 George A. Venter, a public health consultant from Hamilton, Scotland, noted in an October issue of the British Medical Journal, that the evidence linking BSE and vCJD is weak. 13 Even when mice with the human prion protein were injected with BSE prions, they didn’t get the disease.

The first case of CJD, diagnosed in the 1920s, was in a 23 year old, casting doubt that vCJD is a new disease in younger people at all, but more a question of degree and better ascertainment. Britain’s CJD Surveillance Unit noted that widespread concern about the potential infectiousness of BSE resulted in a qualitative change in the type of patients referred to their unit. Clinical features, spread and pathology of vCJD are more similar to Kuru, a disease found in Papua New Guinea, he found. Venters also noted the number of cases are much rarer than would be expected from a food source, making vCJD the “epidemic that never was.”

What Are Our Chances of Contracting vCJD?

While scientists sort through the data, and government and industry take every precaution warranted by available evidence, the bottom-line message for consumers is this. Regardless of the cause, since first identified in the 1980s CSFAN reports that as of May 2003 there have been in total approximately 139 cases of vCJD worldwide, with only 1 case in 2000. Diarrhea diseases, in contrast, cause 2.2 million deaths every year.

Those fretting about mad cow probably think nothing of taking a bath (which kills 320 Americans a year), walking downstairs (which kills 1,421 Americans annually), or driving a car (which kills 42,000 Americans a year). By contrast, the odds of getting vCJD from eating British beef, said the CDC, is about one in ten billion. 14 By comparison, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Search Report determines there’s a 1 in 400,000 chance of a major asteroid striking the earth. 15 That translates to 99.99975% chance an asteroid will miss the Earth, but doesn’t stop some from fearing Armageddon.

If it’s biologically implausible for humans to get mad cow from beef, how did it become conventional wisdom? “Because you don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” said Venters. 16 “The mad cow disease story would be a non-story in the U.S. if it were not for the propaganda efforts of vegetarian groups,” said the National Council Against Health Fraud. Such groups “have seized upon the opportunity to frighten people into behaving in ways they find ideologically delightful.” 17

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), renowned for its food fears, warned in a Nutrition Action Healthletter article “What Could Happen Here?” that “vCJD spares no one” and that the connection between it and mad cow prions is “spreading fear and panic across the globe.” In a Dec. 24th New York Times article, Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s director of food safety, wasted no time telling consumers they should avoid eating any ground meat, or pizza, tacos, hot dogs, salami, bologna and other foods that could contain ground meat, or even T-bones that could have been cut from close to the spinal column. 18 They neglected to report that no infective agent or prion has ever been found in muscle tissue (meat) or milk, and that the brain, spinal column and lower intestine of the infected cow had been removed and sent to the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa—meaning no risk material ever entered the food supply.

But what if every fear being theorized by the fear mongerers 19 became a reality? To find out, the USDA commissioned a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis to study worst case scenarios. Their report found that should BSE be introduced in the U.S., measures taken during the last five years by the government and industry, while not foolproof, will arrest and eradicate the disease. 20 The risk isn’t zero, said David Ropeik, director of risk communication, but it’s as close to zero as you can get.

References & Notes
  1. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). http://www.aphis.usda.gov/lpa/issues/bse/bse-overview.html
  2. Gegner, LaNce, Deer Farming. 2001. Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, Rural Business-Cooperative Service, US Dept of Agriculture; May, 1-23.
  3. US. Center for Disease Control. 2001. BSE and vCJD: Background, Evolution, and Current Concerns; Emerging Infectious Diseases; Jan-Feb; 7(1). http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol7no1/brown.htm
  4. Meister, K., R. Kava, E. Whelan. 2003. The Role of Beef in the American Diet (American Council on Science and Health, January). http://www.acsh.org/publications/reports/beef2003.pdf
  5. Veneman Announces Additional Protection Measures To Guard Against BSE. 2003. USDA News Releases, Release No. 0449.03, Dec. 30. http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2003/12/0449.htm
  6. Tan, Williams, Khan, Champion, Nielsen. 1999. American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, Risk of Transmission of BSE to Humans in the United States, Journal of the American Medical Association; 281: 23, 30-39.
  7. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. 2003. Consumer Questions and Answers About BSE, May. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~comm/bsefaq.html
  8. Statement of the American Meat Institute on USDA’s revised BSE regulatory response. 2003. AMI press release, December 30.
  9. World Health Organization. 2002. Fact Sheet No 113, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. November. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs113/en/
  10. A. Konrad Eugster. 2001. BSE And Food-And-Mouth: Consumer Issues? Texas A&M University Ag News, May 18. http://agnews.tamu.edu/dailynews/stories/ANSC/May1801a.htm
  11. Scott C. Ratzan. 1997. Don’t be Cowed by this Disease, Wall Street Journal,
    May 11. http://www.junkscience.com/news/madcow.html
  12. Brian M. Carney. 2001. Will Ockham’s Razor Cut Mad-Cow Disease Down to Size?, The Wall Street Journal, Europe, July. http://www.junkscience.com/july01/wsje-carney.htm
  13. George A Venters. 2001. New variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease: The Epidemic That Never Was. BMJ October 13; 323: 858-861. http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/323/7317/858
  14. CDC. 2002. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Update. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/cjd/bse_cjd.htm
  15. NASA=E2=80=99s Near-Earth Object Jet Propulsion Laboratory. http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/risk/
  16. Brendan O=E2=80=99Neill. 2001. Beefing Up the Debate, Spiked-on line, 2 November. http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000002D2A9.htm
  17. National Council Against Health Fraud. 1997. Cattleman Sues Oprah For Mad Cow Disease Scare, =E2=80=9D NCAHF News, July/August, 20 (4). http://www.ncahf.org/nl/1997/7-8.html
  18. Sandra Blakeslee and Marian Burros. 2003. “Danger to the Public Is Low, Experts Say”, New York Times, December 24. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/24/science/24PRIM.html
  19. Center for Consumer Freedom. 2003. Mad Cow Scaremongers, December 24. http://www.consumerfreedom.com/headline_detail.cfm?HEADLINE_ID=3D2282
  20. George Gray, Sylvian Kreindel, and Joshua Cohen. Risk Analysis of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Cattle And the Potential for Entry of the Etiologic Agent(s) Into the U.S. Food Supply. Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. http://www.hcra.harvard.edu/foodresearch.html#spongiform

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