MAD COW EPIDEMIC IN THE
An Interview with Colm Kelleher
By Alexander M. Dake
Colm A. Kelleher, Ph.D., a biochemist with a 15-year career in
cell and molecular biology research, has worked in leading
institutes and laboratories around the world, such the
Ontario Cancer Institute, the Terry Fox Cancer Research
Laboratory, and the National Jewish Center for Immunology
and Respiratory Medicine. Paraview Pocket Books just
released his book
Brain Trust, The Hidden Connections between Mad Cow and
Misdianosed Alzheimer’s Disease, while renewed
indications of mad cow disease in the US surfaced and were
eventually tested negatively. This news was a major relief
for the $75 billion U.S. beef industry, but not the end of
the story, as Kelleher explains in his book.
Kelleher warns that unless authorities act against mad cow
disease “by the end of the first decade of the 21st Century
we may be faced with a public health emergency of
unimaginable proportions.” Against this backdrop, Alexander
Dake spoke with Kelleher over lunch at
a delightful restaurant in New York that offers “conscious
cuisine” to its customers.
Over a lunch of miso soup (vegetarian preparation), grilled
vegetable-tofu chopped salad (Dr. Kelleher), char-grilled
organic cheeseburger (Dake), and sparkling water, we
discussed the safety of the U.S. food supply.
Origins of mad cow disease
AD: You describe in your book various diseases as
prions diseases, of which mad cow is the most well known.
What are prions exactly?
CK: Prions are unique, infectious proteins, which,
when they change shape in cells, can kill these cells,
specifically those in the nervous system and in the brain,
and they are fatal. A second characteristic is that they are
very hardy: they can remain in the soil for years. In
addition, the ability to kill these prions is very limited.
Standard sterilization procedures do not harm the prions.
This makes doctors very wary to do autopsies on people who
die from these diseases. In animals these prions diseases
take the form of scrapie for sheep; TME (transmissible mink
encephalopathy) for mink; CWD (chronic wasting disease) for
deer and elk; and mad cow disease or BSE (bovine spongiform
encephalopathy) for cows. Among humans, prions diseases are
CJD (Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease) and Kuru.
AD: You seem to blame Kuru as the main cause of mad
cow disease in the US. How did this all start?
CK: Let me first say that Kuru is not the only cause
of mad cow disease. We know for example that in 1947 scrapie
was imported in the US from Britain. Going back to Kuru,
that was a disease that killed thousands of the Fore tribe
in New Guinea in the 1950s. This disease was spread by this
tribe’s cannibalistic practice of eating dead people,
especially their brains. Two fascinating individuals,
Vincent Zigas, an Australian doctor, and
Carleton Gajdusek, an American
scientist, tried to treat the many women and children that
were suffering from this brain disease. Gajdusek started
researching the brains of those people who had died from
Kuru, and sent samples of these brains to the
Institutes of Health in Baltimore,
Maryland. The purpose of their tests was to determine
whether Kuru was infectious. These tests took place in the
1960s in a wildlife refuge,
where they injected the Kuru brain samples in primates and
many other species. At the same time they discovered that
the human brain disease CJD shared many symptoms with Kuru,
so they also decided to inject CJD tissue into the test
animals. My theory is that infected test animals escaped
from the testing lab into the Patuxent wildlife reserve, and
they in turn infected other animals, and the wider
environment. The spread of these prions diseases became
evident in the following years: in mink farms in Wisconsin,
in deer populations in Colorado, in squirrels in Kentucky,
and in cattle in Washington.
AD: So you do describe a direct link between mad cow
disease and Kuru?
CK: I think that as a potential cause of mad cow in
the US, the possible spread from Patuxent is very important.
However, I would describe the situation in Patuxent more
like throwing gasoline on fire. I want to emphasize that
there is no smoking gun, no specific evidence that multiple
animals escaped and caused the transmission of Kuru. But in
addition to what I just mentioned there have been in recent
years unexplained outbreaks of CJD in different places in
New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Another unexplained
phenomenon is the emergence of CWD, mad deer disease, which
first appeared in a wildlife research facility in Fort
Collins, Colorado, and then in a sister facility in Wyoming.
We don’t know whether there is a link between Patuxent and
these wildlife facilities; what we do know is that that area
has become the epicenter from which the disease has spread
into a dozen states.
Mad cow and mad deer disease
AD: How does CWD, the mad deer disease, present a
danger to our food supply?
CK: Well, first of all, CWD affects an increasingly
popular food, namely venison. But on a broader scale, there
is a clear probability that prions diseases can jump from
deer to cattle, and then to humans. We have seen in the
1990s in the United Kingdom how prions-loaded beef caused
death among humans who had consumed it. Another example was
in 1985 in Wisconsin where 4,000 mink died from prions
diseases, caused by cattle-based feed. This shows that
cattle in the US had already been infected with some form of
mad cow disease at least from 1985. I believe there is a
spreading of prions diseases starting in wildlife,
occasionally moving into beef and maybe dairy and ending up
in our food chain. My basic point is that we have no idea
about the numbers of CJD that result from eating
contaminated wildlife or beef, and that needs to be
addressed urgently and not swept away under the carpet.
AD: Going back to the situation in the UK in the 90s:
among the leading causes of mad cow was feeding cows with
feed containing cattle or road kill. Is the current
situation in the US comparable?
CK: This practice supposedly was discontinued in
1997. However, when last year a mad cow case was discovered
in Washington the media discovered that ground-up cattle is
still being fed to chicken and to pigs. Their waste is then
being recycled as cattle feed. We know that chickens can be
carriers of prions disease. We also know that cow blood is
being spread on cattle feed. This cow blood could come from
infected animals. So there are many loopholes in the
firewalls that the
USDA is so
fond of talking about.
CJD & Alzheimer’s disease
AD: How many people have died so far from CJD
CK: Let me first explain the two strains of CJD:
eating contaminated beef can cause the variant form of CJD (vCJD).
Approximately 150 people have died from vCJD, most of them
in the UK and only one in Florida last year. The official
line is that vCJD is not a problem. Then there is
spontaneous CJD (sCJD), which “officially” arises
spontaneously and is extremely rare. One of my main points
is that the statistics of sCJD are dramatically
underrepresented, as there are actually thousands of cases
of CJD that are misdiagnosed Alzheimer's disease in the US.
In two separate studies, Yale University and the University
of Pittsburgh have shown that between 5-13 percent of the
4-5 million Alzheimer's disease patients in the US are
actually sCJD. On top of all of this, CJD is not even a
reportable disease in 26 states in this country, so no one
knows whether it is widely spread or not. It would be
dangerous and irresponsible to assume it’s not.
AD: Are you saying that Alzheimer’s and CJD are the
CK: No. They do have overlapping symptoms, but what I
am saying is that there is a hidden number of CJD cases
misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s. Let’s face it: Alzheimer’s
disease has shown a dramatic increase in the US of 9,000
percent over the last 20 years. In 1979, 653 people died of
Alzheimers and in 2002 that number was 51,000. In Europe,
too, the number of Alzheimer cases has exploded. The
CDC released a report in 1996 explaining that these
growing numbers were based on increased efficiency of
diagnosis. In the meantime, there is a mindset developing
that old people are expected to die of some kind of dementia
or Alzheimer’s. Well, half a century ago Alzheimer’s was
very rare. I submit that we don’t have enough information to
make these claims: most Alzheimer’s victims are not
autopsied. There are also too many unanswered questions
about prions diseases. So without further research and
testing, medical authorities should not issue blanket
statements such as “all the meat we eat is 100 percent
Health risks of eating meat
AD: What do you think are the chances of eating
infected beef and getting CJD?
CK: It’s hard to quantify the risks, but it’s clear
that there is a risk. We know that prions diseases do exist
in the US. We know from the European experience that people
die from eating prions-laced beef. We know that there are a
number of strange cases of young people, who are avid
hunters, and enjoy eating venison who have died in this
country. Again, we don’t know all the answers yet, but these
cases may be the canary in the coalmine.
AD: How about the risks among the different kinds of
CK: I would assign a higher risk to venison and beef,
followed by chicken and pork. Many of these animals are
killed before they could develop any symptoms, and that’s
why I advocate that testing needs to be increased
dramatically. Before last year’s first mad cow case in the
US, the USDA tested only 20,000 downer cows per year out of
35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the US. That
number increased since to 200,000 animals being tested. This
is less than 1 percent, which is ludicrously low. In Japan,
for example, they test every cow for mad cow disease before
it goes to market. In Europe, they test about a third of
cows before they go to market.
AD: What about your own eating habits: have they
changed since doing your research?
CK: I am not a vegetarian. I still eat meat
occasionally, although not in restaurants. I usually buy
organic meat, but I ask questions such as where the meat is
from and whether it is grain fed or grass fed. I do want to
make sure that I know what I eat.
AD: What about the risks of organic meat?
CK: Well, I think the risks are substantially less
than with regular meat. I believe in limiting the risks of
eating infected food, but eliminating the risks completely
would probably require an absolute change in lifestyle.
AD: What is your view on the claims from official
authorities and respected institutions such as the
Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the
that the risk of eating beef is close to zero? They claim
that the American food supply is the safest in the history
CK: There is an understandable reluctance on the part
of the government institutions and the meat lobby groups to
admit any risk. They want to protect the beef industry. Any
real or perceived risk of our beef could be a major blow to
this multi-billion dollar industry. You saw exactly the same
thing happening in the United Kingdom: their ministry of
agriculture denied any risk till it was openly evident. It’s
also important to point out that for example the Harvard
Center for Risk Analysis is not as unbiased as it seems:
many of its studies are paid for by government departments.
AD: We just have seen a potential second mad cow case
in the US, which after multiple testing has been determined
to be negative. What is your view on this case?
CK: A number of
publications have already raised questions about which
parts of the brain were tested, because a brain can have
different parts which can simultaneously be infected or not.
Also, questions have been raised about how trustworthy this
testing is. In the meantime, we are still waiting for
results of a
Texan woman who may have died from CJD. If sooner or
later even a single case of vCJD occurs in the US that is
not from a British person, then this whole house of cards
begins to look shaky.
The immediate future
AD: Considering that the current wait-and-see
attitude is supported by influential institutions, what do
you want to be done right now?
CK: First thing is that a major increase of testing
needs to be implemented immediately, and the American public
needs to be warned that there may be a danger with beef so
that they can make informed decisions about their diet.
Secondly, there needs to be an increased national awareness
of CWD. Not only are there signs of a mad cow epidemic in
the US, there is a second, mad deer, epidemic that is
spreading rapidly through the country. Many individual CDC
and Department of Natural Resources officials have expressed
their concern to me. One CDC official suggested that what
should be urgently done is research and question the health
status of the Colorado hunters who have been hunting elk
over the last 20 years. This would offer us critical
knowledge about the spread of CWD.
AD: What do you suggest consumers at home and in
restaurants can do?
CK: I think we all should put a lot more pressure on
our politicians and on the USDA. Whether it takes political
activism or media action, we need to get more testing done
and make clear that the blanket statements that everything
is ok are no longer acceptable.
Book by this author:
Brain Trust, The Hidden Connections between Mad Cow and
Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease
Other recommended books:
Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture
by Jeremy Rifkin
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser
Leading related websites (too many to list, but start
Annual incidence rate of BSE in the UK
FDA –BSE site
Center for Global Food Issues
Humane Society of the US
Organic Consumers Association
USDA Econ. Research Service
Recent news releases:
Meating of the Minds Las Vegas Mercury
Texas woman's death probed for mad cow tie in USA
U.S. Reports Possible Case Of Mad Cow in New York
Suspect Animal Tests Negative for Mad Cow by Reuters
USDA vets question agency's mad cow lab by UPI
Mad Cow: Delay and Denial in St. Louis-Post-Dispatch
BSE: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy: AKA Mad Cow Disease.
Killed >100,000 cattle in the UK and Europe in the 1990s.
CWD: Chronic Wasting Disease: Mad deer disease. Prion
disease in deer and elk. Now epidemic in wild deer and elk
as well as farmed deer and elk in parts of US and Canada.
Kuru: Discovered in New Guinea in 1955. Kuru is actually a CJD. Kuru killed thousands of people in New Guinea.
Prion: A novel infectious protein that kills when it changes
shape within the cell and provokes suicide program. Over
time can kill billions of brain cells. Creates a chain
reaction by changing shape of normal cellular prion proteins
and causing them too to kill cells. Is highly infectious and
can cross species, although not all the time.
Scrapie: prion disease in sheep.
Sporadic CJD: human fatal
TSE that officially arises "spontaneously", but scientific
evidence strongly implies some sCJD caused by eating
TME: Transmissible Mink
Encephalopathy: Fatal disease of mink. Thought to be caused
by eating the remains of BSE-infected animals.
TSE: Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a general term
that covers all prion diseases, both human and animal. These
are fatal neurological diseases.
Variant CJD: fatal human CJD, first found in UK in
1992/1993, definitely caused by eating contaminated meat
(mostly mad cow meat).
© 2004 Alexander M. Dake