Risky business: Where’s the beef?


“You must have your column done,” observed my friend Charlotte Crothers, as we said hello at a high school basketball game last night.

She knows me well, having heard me say after too many Monday night meetings that I still had to go home and write my column.

“Well, not exactly,” I admitted.

“You go to press tomorrow, don’t you?” asked Char, who retired from Agland Co-op in Lisbon and is an avid reader.

OK, so much for my perpetual resolution not to procrastinate. I was busted.

At a break in the court action, Char turned around and said, “Why don’t you write about mad cow disease?”

I said that was on my mind, too.

“I get so disgusted with all the news, after a while, I just shut the TV off!” Char said.

Char shares my belief that our current beef supply is safe. Not all consumers agree.

There is a risk – a minuscule risk, a tiny risk – that mad cow disease is a threat to my health. There is evidence that the agent that causes BSE in cows causes variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans.

I say the risk is tiny because most of the beef we eat, even if it came from an infected cow, is muscle cuts like steak or roasts, which are not host to the prions that cause BSE. There is a greater risk of BSE contamination in ground beef, if bits of neural tissue gets mixed into the processing.

To me, however, that risk is still negligible. Slim to none.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that there have been only 153 cases of vCJD worldwide. Of those, 143 cases occurred in the United Kingdom – in a population of 60 million – where more than 183,000 cattle in 35,000 herds were infected with BSE. And many of these cases were triggered before feed bans were enacted to protect cattle and the food chain.

In comparison, choking on food or other foreign objects is thought to cause about 3,000 deaths per year.

Quite a difference.

Everything we do is a risk. Every time we get behind the wheel of a car or a tractor, every time we walk across a street, we take a risk.

According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, our annual risk for dying in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 6,745. Our risk of an alcohol-related death is 1 in 6,210. Our risk from dying of cancer is 1 in 511 and death from heart disease is 1 in 397.

My risk of dying from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is infinitesimal.

I am not belittling perceptions of risk, nor concern over food safety.

And, quite frankly, the ban on downer cows and stronger safety precautions against the potential for spinal and brain tissue to enter the food chain are long overdue. (The ban, however, raises more of my concern that it will become more difficult to discover and track these diseases.)

But risks are often more about perceptions and less about reality.

For now, it appears most consumers have made the distinction between large risks and small ones and are continuing to eat beef.

That’s the good news in the not-so-good mad cow disease story.


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