Poor Cow

Tim Radford

  • Lethal Legacy: BSE – The Search for Truth by Stephen Dealler
    Bloomsbury, 307 pp, £5.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2940 X
  • BSE: The Facts by Brian Ford
    Corgi, 208 pp, £4.99, May 1996, ISBN 0 552 14530 0
  • Agriculture and Health Committees. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD): Recent Developments
    HMSO, 149 pp, £17.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 10 237796 0
  • Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture by Jeremy Rifkin
    Thorsons, 353 pp, £8.99, June 1996, ISBN 0 7225 2979 1

All flesh is grass, said Peter the Apostle. In the United States, a calf runs the range for less than a year before going to a crowded feed-lot. It is treated with hormones to promote weight gain. Both there and in Britain the beast is likely to be drenched with antibiotics to keep down diseases and to promote further weight gain. It has one role in its short life – to get fat, on corn, sorghum, wheat, soybeans, whatever. This stuff is saturated with herbicides and pesticides. Consumers pay for what they eat: the National Research Council of the Academy of Sciences estimates that beef pesticide contamination represents 11 per cent of the total cancer risk from pesticides in US foods. On the other hand, the quicker you fatten a beast for slaughter, the higher your return.

Dairymen in the US or Britain have to think along the same lines. Are you going to leave the cow to eat grass (including hay and silage) all year round? How much milk will that yield? And how many cows can you stock that way? It pays to buy in feed – providing it is cheap enough – and get either more per acre or more per cow or both. If you want a twice-daily Niagara of milk and cream as output, you have to do some lateral thinking about input. A cow is a ruminant with a complicated stomach arrangement, wonderfully adapted to convert grass to protein. Left to itself at pasture, it would calve, nurse, wean and dry up. But a cow is not left to itself. It has a calf and then swiftly says goodbye to it, but twice daily milking keeps the hormone system producing as if the calf were still there. Milk is complicated stuff, protein from vitamins and cellulose via a two-stomach process. A short cut is to deliver protein directly into the digestive system.

Any animal that eats grass also consumes a significant proportion of animal protein with it: snails, slugs, worms, larvae, even winged and wingless insects. For all species but one, vegetarian diet is an adaptation, not a moral position. Those inadvertent savoury snacks are probably welcome. Wild bovids must originally have roamed the plains, steppes, savannahs and prairies following grass and anything else they could find. Domestic bovids cannot migrate, so the anything else arrives by other means: dried grass, fermented grass, and cattle cake or pellets, high in protein. Milk for months, or steak marbled with fat, requires cheap protein. Any biological material will serve as a starting point. In the US, according to Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, some feedlots have been experimenting with cardboard, newspaper and sawdust. Others have been scraping up manure from pigpens and chicken houses and adding it to the cattlefeed. The stuff contains nitrogen and other minerals, so why not? What is food? A mixture of hydrogen and carbon and a few other elements available in solution, in long complicated chains: oil fits the description, and so does industrial sewage, so those, too, might go into the porridge. Why should cattle be deprived of a calcium supplement? Cement dust, which is an oxide of calcium, may be just the thing: the US Department of Agriculture says a shovelful of cement dust in the trough produces a 30 per cent faster weight gain.

There is a problem about delivering all this supercharged supplement to a beast with a digestive tract designed by evolution to take tiny amounts of nourishment from huge volumes of sere stuff like grass. The civilisation that invented All Bran understands this problem perfectly. Cows, too, need roughage. (Indeed, cows, unlike humans, have evolved to do very well almost entirely on roughage.) So scientists at Kansas State University have been working on artificial roughage in the form of little pellets of plastic: 80 per cent ethylene maybe, and 20 per cent propylene. It is cheaper than hay. And after you have slaughtered the animal you can scrape out maybe 20lbs of the stuff from the rumen, melt it down and recycle it. But what comes out of the cow’s back end is not the main concern here. What is of concern to cows, farmers and public is what goes in to make the milk. In Britain, for decades – indeed since before the war, says the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – farmers have been buying, as part of cattle food mixture, a crunchy, lightly toasted, dried food snack packed with all the minerals and proteins a body might need to survive. It is, of course, baked meat and bone meal made from the carcasses of dead ruminant beasts, such as cows and sheep. You could think of it as grass in concentrated form. In the interests of cheap food bovids with naturally coarse vegetarian tastes have been persuaded to turn not just to carnivory, but to a tasty form of cannibalism as well. Man interferes with nature, and nature strikes back.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy was identified in a dairy herd of Holsteins in Kent in November 1986. The implication is that until then it did not exist. Some members of the British Veterinary Association have never been sure of this. Some of them think it might always have been around, a very rare, random affliction, dramatically amplified when a demented beast was turned into crisps and fed to its relatives. Another working hypothesis is that it ‘crossed a species boundary’: scrapie, known to exist in sheep for the last two hundred years or more, survived the process of converting a sheep into food for Holstein dairy cattle. Like BSE, scrapie is a spongiform encephalopathy. No human has ever been known to catch it. On the other hand, there is, and has been for many decades, and in more than one form, a human spongiform encephalopathy. It is signalled by unsteadiness, loss of control and memory, and dementia, and it ends wretchedly, but the condition is not normally diagnosed with certainty until after death. On examination, the brain is marked by holes, like a sponge.

One form of this illness is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or CJD. Some people seem to inherit a risk of it: about 10 per cent of cases are hereditary. (There is a very rare form known as Gerstmann-Straussler-Schenker Syndrome or Fatal Familial Insomnia.) Others get CJD for no discernible reason. A tiny, tragic group of people are believed to have contracted it after taking growth hormones extracted from the pituitary glands of human cadavers. There is another form, endemic in a tribe in New Guinea: it, too, is a spongiform encephalopathy, called kuru or the laughing disease. The tribe honoured its dead by eating or otherwise ritually handling their brains. This practice has ceased, and the disease is dying out, but for a while it was well studied. CJD, by now, is also well-studied. It is a rare disease, occurring at a rate of rather less than one case per million per year. It has been occurring at this rate in Britain for years, both before and since the start of the BSE epidemic, and in Israel and Austria, where there is no BSE, and in India, where they don’t eat beef and cows are sacred. One case in a million per year is truly rare; it is the prospect of a future sharp increase which has caused alarm. CJD is a disease for which there is no explanation and no known treatment.

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