Friday, March 26


Once again, hard-charging Steve Mitchell has uncovered an odd CJD case that no one in charge seems to want to discuss, but which relatives consider to be full-blown Mad Cow. "A Connecticut woman who physicians initially suspected in 2000 of being the nation's first case of human mad cow disease appears to have been overlooked by state and federal health officials," he reports. Not only did her doctor initially suspect that form of the disease "based on electroencephalogram readings of Jodi's brain waves," but her case, at age 50 (very young for "sporadic" CJD) should have automatically triggered an investigation by the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center. But folks there are extremely cagey about discussing why no investigation seems to have happened, using the old, irrelevant "patient confidentiality" excuse so well-bandied by the National Zoo. None of it proves Americans are dying from real Mad Cow, but this story alone would make you wonder about the whole situation.

UPDATE 3/28: Speaking of those pesky suspicious CJD cases, The New York Times has now put its imprimatur on The Case of the Cherry Hill Cluster. Just ran across it - I'll have more after I read it. You too, huh?

AFTER READING: Well, it's an OK piece, I suppose, but typical of NYTMag style, I guess, in that it was either assigned with, or the author decided on, certain undeclared biases as to what the real story is. Skarbek is painted as a woman driven to distraction by her quixotic obsession, with clumsy Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole references, and the focus is on her and her motivations rather than the more relevant food-safety question. Almost no other clusters, nor the vast amount of lying and smokescreening done by the USDA on Mad Cow, are mentioned. Ultimately, the story is either willfully dishonest or ridiculously incompetent: I'll give "D.T. Max" a pass on the highly relevant factoid that CJD is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimers, but in an article whose core question is whether there might be a strain of variant CJD that resembles "sporadic" CJD, there's ABSOLUTELY NO MENTION of the bombshell discovery, earlier this year, of exactly that type of BSE - and experts' opinion that this means we should be looking for it in human CJD. That omission alone is incredibly lame, and kind of sinks the credibility of the whole piece, unfortunately.

Thursday, March 25


This will come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog, but large hog farms are, simply put, hell on earth.

    The odor knocks visitors off balance the moment they walk in the battered front door of HKY Farm. It's not so much a barnyard smell as a noxious combination of manure, ammonia and death that intensifies as one moves toward the barns. Next comes the sound of dozens of sows screaming and thrashing at their cages at the arrival of visitors and the prospect of food, a noise so loud and unsettling that a farm manager puts on ear plugs as he enters.

    Inside, HKY Farm looks like a third world prison for pigs. Dozens of dead piglets are dumped in piles or encased in pools of manure beneath the floor, having drowned there after falling through a hole. Dead hogs remain in their cages, discarded and stiff in walkways or rotting in pens as other pigs gnaw at their carcasses. Many of the 1,800 or so pigs that are alive are emaciated, crippled or covered with open sores, having been poked by jagged iron bars from broken cages or fallen through slats that separate them from the manure pits below. The nursery, heated to protect the piglets, is swarming with flies, and the "sterile room" where food and medicine are stored includes yet another pile of dead pigs stacked in front of a refrigerator and bags of pig feed.

    Then there's the manure. It's piled in mounds in cages and concrete pens where the animals live, dripping down the walls and floating as particulate matter in a fetid brown haze that permeates the buildings.
And guess what? This ain't even the worst of them ("critics say HKY is hardly unique among the thousands of large hog farms that have sprung up in the past decade"), and they'll keep on going until people band together and stop them. Which is what some brave souls are doing. As the Chicago Tribune reports (via Miami Herald), "increasingly, neighbors themselves are heading to court, complaining that the odor and gases wafting toward their homes are making them sick and destroying their property values."

Hog industry advocates insist that "the backlash has been driven by urban residents who move to the country and don't like the smells that come with it." Now, you may have wondered about the sentence I italicized up there. Does that square with this? I know the smell of the country, I know it well. It's not something that knocks you over. It's not the smell of death. That's not the smell of the country, it's the smell of screw-everybody CAFOs. (The GAO noted that 60 percent of the largest CAFOs are unregulated.)

And lest we forget what's driving the other side, well, it's pretty simple. This article notes in passing that "the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jim Moseley, is a champion of industrial-style hog production and the former manager of Infinity Pork, a hog CAFO in Indiana. Illinois' Department of Agriculture director, Chuck Hartke, is a former farmer whose son now runs the family's factory-style hog farm."

Wednesday, March 24


Randy Cohen, the "Ethicist" for the New York Times Magazine, has weighed in on the fur issue, and not surprisingly, finds that "there is no justification for harming animals to make something as frivolous as a fur coat." It's also, unfortunately, not surprising that he's able to see that, but dismisses the suffering of food animals. "A case can be made for some exploitation of animals -- as food or in important medical research -- when there is no meaningful alternative, and when their suffering is minimized." Yeah, but there are plenty of meaningful alternatives to eating animal products - and their suffering is rarely, if ever, "minimized." Admittedly, he only says "a case can be made" for it, and I guess I'd respond that "a case can be made" against it, too. But it's funny how the ethics of causing pain and suffering to animals for something as frivolous as a particular habitual food taste escapes even our deepest media thinkers. (Via Fund for Animals)

Tuesday, March 23


The death last week of Ronald Swartz of Denville, NJ is being examined as possibly the third case of CJD, the extremely rare ("one in a million") disease, in a little over a year in an area with a population of 789,000. Plus, the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center in Cleveland has "reopened the case of a Philadelphia woman who died in 2000 and is included among the cases in a possible cluster of CJD cases tied to southern New Jersey. Carrie Mahan, 29, died from a brain disorder that was never identified but physicians initially suspected of being the nation's first case of variant CJD."

This is showing up on the Washington Times site, which means we'll probably see a fuller Steve Mitchell-bylined story in a day or two - I'll keep you updated.

UPDATE 3/24: Yep, here's the long-form version, Five CJD deaths in north N.J. in 15 months. In reading through it, I'm inferring that the five number here is because that includes confirmed or probable deaths, while the Wash. Times version limited itself to confirmed. But there are some interesting additional tidbits... The case of the Philadelphia woman, Carrie Mahan, "has baffled neurologists, such as Dr. Pierluigi Gambetti, director of the Surveillance Center, because Mahan's condition was never identified conclusively. However, many experts, including Dr. Nicholas Gonatas -- the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Mahan -- thought it was CJD. Now Gambetti plans to determine if newer, more sensitive tests developed since 2000 can detect the presence of prions, the agents thought to be responsible for both CJD and vCJD, in Mahan's brain tissue." Steve Mitchell also notes that "Another factor driving the decision to re-examine Mahan's diagnosis could be the opinions of neurologists who observed the slides of her brain when Gambetti recently presented them anonymously at a neurology meeting. Allen said Gambetti told him most neurologists there had agreed the condition looked like CJD."

And on the other coast, the Seattle Times is noting the trend: "More people are wondering whether their elderly relative might have suffered from CJD -- a degenerative disease of the nervous system -- or its variant, the human form of mad cow disease. And with so little known about the deadly diseases, some are asking if any of those cases might be traced back to bad beef."

Another interesting piece in this one has to do with the meaning of "sporadic CJD." "Labeling traditional CJD 'sporadic' is a way of getting around the fact that no one knows what causes it, said Dr. Laura Manuelidis, a neuropathologist at Yale University. Parting with the prevailing theory, she believes the culprit is more likely some type of infectious agent, not misfolded proteins. 'Spontaneous CJD just means we don't know where the infection is coming from,' she said. There's also evidence that some cases of CJD could be mistakenly tagged Alzheimer's or some other type of dementia. Swiss officials found a CJD rate of three cases per million after improving their tracking system -- triple the previously accepted rate." Just sayin'.


Bobby Acord, administrator of the USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, resigned today, for personal reasons. You know, more time with his family and all that. Oh yeah, and also he didn't think we should be widely testing for Mad Cow. A year ago, he said "There is no scientific evidence to support anything beyond what we're doing in this country, quite frankly." This was when they were still doing 10,000 cows a year and expanding it to 20,000. A simpler time, no?

And in what I assume is a coincidence, on the same day, the head of Japan's Gyudon rice bowl chain Nakau also announced he will step down due to the Mad Cow crisis. After all, What kind of gyudon shop doesn't serve gyudon? In a somewhat humorous note, the company ran out of beef due to the ban on American imports of dubious safety. But "bowls of rice topped with chicken, introduced to replace the beef, have fared poorly in the wake of the outbreak of bird flu in Japan."

Monday, March 22


Is it a coincidence this column appeared just before the Great American Meatout? "Abby" is talking about a specific case, but her use of the imperative is clear. When a questioner describes an unwelcome house guest who complains - "The steak isn't cooked the way he likes it, or I don't toss the salad the way his mom does. ... How can I get this moocher out of my home without causing trouble between my husband and myself?" Abby says: "That's easy. Stop feeding that moocher steak, go vegetarian, and toss the salads YOUR way."


Call me an East-Coast city slicker, but I had no idea there were more than one or two vegans in the whole state of Idaho. But in this NY Times story about John Kerry, a tossed off comment about this one town mentions that "[its] rebellious teenagers tend to be "hard-core vegans." Hey, aren't the B-52s vegan? It all makes sense now...