BOOKS 5r THE CULTURE When Bovines Go Bad BY JAMES E. McWILLIAMS How the Cows Turned Mad By Maxime Schwartz Translated by Edward Schneider University of California Press 238 pages, $24.95 n April 27, 2004, a Texas cow dropped dead while waiting to be ground into beef outside a Gonzalez-area slaughterhouse. The death provoked particular concern among consumer advocates because it happened less than four months after scientists confirmed the nation’s first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Washington State. The culprit in this high-profile case was a dairy cow born in Canada and fed with Canadian feed. Intensifying concerns was the fact that the USDA, of all agencies, had recently allowed 7 million pounds of Canadian beef to cross the border \(under special permits that scenario even more problematic was the recollection that many years ago a load of Canadian feed had accidentally made its way into American feed, satiating any number of cows capable of holding BSE in incubation for years. In light of the facts that BSE is caused by tainted feed and can manifest itself as Creutzfeldtthereby turning the brain into a sponge before of common sense would insist thatat the very leastthe dead Texas cow be tested for BSE. But in Texas, a countryoops, make that a statewhere supporting “antievolution” gets you elected to school boards, common sense is at a dire premium. Rational deliberation on matters scientific is systematically undermined by a set of priorities that supports the beef industry at the expense of responsible public health policy. While one might wish to dismiss our evangelicals as nutso anti-enlightenment crusaders, their zealous efforts to subvert sound science with “Intelligent Design Theory” has led Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, for one, to have its backbone removed and publish ideologically tainted textbooks unconcerned with hard science. Relax, I’m not about to blame a publishing company for Mad Cow Disease. But the conspiratorially minded might ponder the connection between beef and fundamentalism with some justification. How else could we the Texas people possibly accept the USDA’s decision NOT to test that dead Texas cow and then turn around and declare with the utmost confidence, “We don’t have a new BSE case”? How else, were it not for plain old scientific ignorance, could we abide by our Bumbler-in-Chief’s April 2004 claim that “It’s in our interest that live beef [sic] be moving back and forth [from Canada]”? How the Cows Turned Mad provides the hard science required to understand the genuine risk that Mad Cow Disease poses to anyone who chooses to spin the wheel and eat beef. While the book rarely deals with politics and policies, it’s a workman-like resource about Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies data into 200 pages of relatively accessible and soberly presented information about “The Disease,” its origins, and the myriad means of its contagion and transmissibility. Keep in mind, though, the term relatively. While the proponents of “intelligent design” haven’t a chance of grasping the book’s intricate scientific explanations, even readers with a belief in genetics, protein synthesis, and nucleic acids will find many passages burdened with complexities that at least had me grasping for a student’s biology texton what really should be common scientific knowledge. While it seems an extreme measure to take in order to understand a trade book, might I trot out the clich that knowledge is power. Might I also reiterate that those who already have power can hire people to manipulate that knowledge for them, leaving the rest of us to go about it on our own. We shouldn’t be lazy about this task because the beef industry and those who regulate it aren’t losing sleep over our health. The Disease’s etiology began in the 1740s with the English quest to clothe the world in wool. The increase in sheep production naturally inspired greater attention to their health, leading one English farmer to take special note when a single sheep began “rubbing himself again Trees, Posts, & with such Fury as to pull off his Wool and tear away his Flesh:’ The Disease, confirmed by strikingly similar reports in France and Germany, came to be called “scrapie.” Scientific knowledge being what it was before Mendel and Pasteur, some farmers attributed the strange behavior to \(\(excessive copulation by rams:’ Others who hypothesized the Disease’s infectious nature advised that the owner of a sick sheep simply slaughter the dizzy fur bag and feed it to the servants. Needless to say, the Enlightenment had its work cut out for it. Maxime Schwartz, a professor at the Institute Pasteur in Paris, takes us from 1800 to 1920 with dutiful primers on Pasteur’s “three dimensional chemistry,” Mendelian genetics, and the chromosome theory of heredity. These pivotal scientific developments helped English scrapie was infectious among sheep in natural conditions, most likely due to 0 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/13/04
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