For as long as there have been food safety laws, there have been people arguing that those laws have been overly stringent and based on nonexistent or overstated food scares. An early example of this was the public response to The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel that depicted working- class life in early twentieth-century Chicago. The book is best remembered for its description of the unsafe and horrific conditions at a canning factory, such as the use of diseased cows in canned meats and tales of men falling into vats and being processed into lard. The public outrage to the practices detailed in The Jungle led to the passage of the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, which established sanitary standards for the meat industry and required the inspection of animals before and after slaughter. However, some critics have questioned whether the fear generated by The Jungle was justified, noting that Sinclair did not intend his book to be a wholly accurate portrayal of the Chicago meatpacking industry. As Sinclair himself explained, his intention was to gain sympathy for the working class, not to expose the meatpacking companies. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said. According to a 1998 article by Professor E.C. Pasour, “[Sinclair] did not even pretend to have actually witnessed or verified the horrendous conditions he ascribed to Chicago packing houses. . . . Indeed, a congressional investigation at the time found little substance in Sinclair’s allegations.”
Ninety years after The Jungle appeared in print, another threat to meat safety was widely publicized. The “mad cow” epidemic raises a question similar to that inspired by Sinclair’s book—whether the meat supply is unsafe and steps should be taken by the government to improve the practices of the meat industry, or whether the public is too easily frightened by media hype.
A look at mad cow disease
Mad cow disease is formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Spongiform encephalopathies are diseases that gradually destroy the brain and central nervous system; the victims’ brain tissue appears sponge-like when examined under a microscope. The first outbreaks of mad cow disease occurred in Britain in the mid-1980s, the result of cows being fed sheep brains and spinal columns infected with scrapie, a rare sheep disease that got its name because affected sheep exhibit unusual itching behavior, eventually scraping away large portions of their wool. The sheep also weaken, have trouble walking, and typically die within a few months of catching the disease. Britain responded to the mad cow crisis by banning the use of animals in cattle feed and killing all cows that exhibited symptoms of BSE, which include aggressive and unpredictable behavior and difficulty standing and walking. The United States also took action by banning the import of British cattle and meat products in 1989.
Mad cow disease garnered increased attention in 1995, when ten Britons died from a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a human disease similar to mad cow. The following year, the British government announced that a link possibly existed between the new strain of CJD (nvCJD) and the consumption of BSE-infected meat. That theory gained credence in March 1999, when a report by the National Academy of Sciences in the District of Columbia stated that mad cow disease can be transmitted to primates through food. As of March 1999, thirty-nine people had died from nvCJD. The symptoms, similar to BSE and scrapie, include memory loss, depression, and a loss of balance. Victims become unable to care for themselves, slipping into comas or baby-like states before dying.
Although the total number of deaths from nvCJD has been small, and there have been no known cases of mad cow–related CJD disease in the United States as of June 1999, the public—especially in North America and Europe—has been largely frightened by the possibility the disease could reach epidemic proportions. In 1996, British microbiologist Dr. Richard Lacey predicted that up to 500,000 Britons could die each year from nvCJD. One reason why some people fear a catastrophic death rate is that CJD has an incubation period of ten to fifteen years. Thus, even people who have become vegetarians could remain at risk for the disease. One victim who may have developed the disease after a lengthy incubation was Peter Hall, who had stopped eating meat prior to exhibiting the symptoms in December 1994. He died fourteen months later at age twenty. Hall, like many of the other victims, was a healthy young adult; the more common strains of CJD afflicted older people. In addition to eating contaminated meat, some of the victims had worked with meat, either as teenagers or adults.
The mad cow scare led to widespread changes in eating habits. The worldwide beef industry lost $10 billion in 1996, due to a decrease in consumption and importation. Government officials in Britain removed beef from the menus of approximately two thousand schools. By May 1996, beef consumption had fallen by 25 percent in Britain and 30 percent in the European Union, while the United States decreased its import of cattle by 1 percent. Government and business policy in the United States also changed, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of bone and meat meal in cattle and sheep feed in June 1996.
Although European consumption of cattle had begun to return to earlier levels by 1998, and the United States increased its beef imports by 10 percent in 1997, some people made more permanent changes. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Ellen Ruppel Shell explains how the BSE scare changed her family’s shopping and cooking habits. “I avoid any ground meat that hasn’t been ground in the store where I buy it. . . . And my eight-year-old daughter has forsaken lunch meats for what she calls ‘vegetarian burgers,’ which consist of a slice of American cheese melted over two sandwich pickles on a bun.”
Part of the drop in meat industry profits and consumption was due to the influence of the media. Just as it had in 1906, when The Jungle was published, the American public reacted strongly to news about unsafe practices at farms and processing plants. In 1906, a book had played a key role. Nine decades later, a television program proved to be particularly influential. In April 1996, television talk show host Oprah Winfrey aired an interview with former rancher Howard Lyman, who claimed that the practice of feeding ground-up animal parts to cattle could lead to a mad cow epidemic in the United States. Upon hearing this, Winfrey stated that she would never eat another hamburger. Following the show’s broadcast, the demand for beef fell—cattle prices decreased 10 percent over the next two weeks, costing cattlemen millions of dollars. A group of Texas cattlemen sued Oprah over their loss in profits, arguing that she had created an unnecessary panic. The lawsuit stated in part: “The carefully and maliciously edited statements [on the show] were designed to hype the ratings at the expense of the American cattle industry. . . . The statements disparaged the safety of American beef, and intentionally placed unfounded and unwarranted fear in the beef consumer’s mind.” Winfrey won the suit in February 1998 but the verdict was appealed. As of June 1999, the appellate court had not reached a decision. Cattle rancher Paul Engler, one of the plaintiffs in the first suit, filed a second suit against Winfrey; as of this writing, a decision had not been reached.
The Texas cattlemen were not the only group who questioned the public’s reaction to mad cow disease. Many media commentators have also contended that the threat has been overhyped. In an article in the March 30, 1996, issue of The Spectator, a British weekly, Frank Johnson questions the popular response to the scientific reports on BSE, reports he considers misleading. “The scientists spoke, and the result was hysteria from interviewers, tabloids and liberal broadsheets. Yet the people whipping it up did not believe it.”
Meat-related deaths in the United States
While nvCJD has yet to kill Americans, other types of meat contamination have proved fatal. In late 1992 and early 1993, four children died and hundreds of people became sick after eating undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box. Those burgers contained the Escherichia coli (E. coli ) O157:H7 bacteria, which can only be killed if the meat is cooked thoroughly. In addition, twenty-one people died and 100 more became ill in 1998 after eating Sara Lee hot dogs and cold cuts that harbored the listeria microbe. Other dangerous bacteria include salmonella, which is found in raw meat, seafood, poultry and eggs, as well as animal feces, and can cause up to 3,800 deaths each year.
As with the 1906 meat inspection act and the 1989 and 1996 bans on cattle and certain feeds, the government has responded to these dangers by imposing new regulations and warnings. In 1995, a food-safety system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) was implemented to test the safety of seafood; its use was expanded in 1996 to meat and poultry. Under the HACCP system, slaughterhouse and plant managers identify points in the production process where contamination could occur and take steps to prevent that contamination. The listeria outbreak led to a May 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture warning that advised pregnant women, the elderly, and small children to avoid eating soft cheeses and processed meats, unless the meat is reheated until steaming hot. However, as health care writer Sue Carls points out in an article in The World & I, the public should not assume that these regulations will guarantee a safe food supply. According to Carls, “Many of the cases of foodborne bacteria begin well outside the processing plant. The mishandling of food at the consumer level is a huge factor.”
Whether nvCJD will become epidemic remains to be seen. Although that particular threat to food safety may turn out to be overhyped, contaminants in the U.S. food supply have led to illnesses that are estimated to kill more than nine thousand Americans each year and sicken millions more. Consequently, the food safety debate extends beyond the actual risks of certain foods and into the question of what steps, if any, need to be taken to ensure the improved and continued safety of the American food supply. In Food Safety: At Issue, the authors consider the causes of food-borne illnesses and evaluate possible solutions.