Blinded by Science: Addicted to Beef

In the face of mad cow disease, why did the British keep eating their beef?

By Bruno Maddox|Thursday, April 12, 2007
RELATED TAGS: INFECTIOUS DISEASES
WALES — The old gray butcher is stooped and arthritic, his blue-and-white–striped apron stained with blood. He thinks for several moments, then looks back at me, and then down at the floor, and then back up again, right at me, peering into the eyes of this grizzled correspondent. “A bit of tail now is it you said?”

“Yes, please. If you have any.”

These words seem to strike a chord, and the old man looks down again at the floor. “Well, that’s just it, isn’t it?” he philosophizes. “Dowe ’ave any? But I won’t know, see, until I’ve ’ad a look in the back.”

With this he pivots and stumbles away down the old stone halls of the shop, as generations of his family’s menfolk have stumbled before.I follow, and we stop before what Americans would call a cooler, in which Americans might store bottles of beer to toast the thrill of being alive after they’ve white-water rafted or parked an SUV atop an unclimbable finger of rock in the painted southwestern desert.

But this is Wales, in the British Isles, which will in 2007 haves pent just over 20 years in the shadow of mad cow disease (the first reported case was in November 1986, but it was not made public until months later). And from the cooler the old man pulls oxtails, frozen,shrink-wrapped, and chunked into daisy heads of flesh and bone and those murky neural tunnels we would fall down in our dreams. Banned in the early years of the mad cow scare because of the proximity of the meat to the animal’s spine, oxtails are once again legal to possess and distribute. Yet the butcher is furtive as he hands me them, and I lift them to the light for closer study as if I were a terrorist on Fox’s 24 taking receipt of some unspecified, ludicrously high-tech bomb component.

Has it really been 20 years now of our feasting on meat that, for all we know, may yet take down a nation?

There is a theory popular among liberals, Buddhists, and various other types of hippies that human beings are all essentially the same. Even though, yes, some of us do spend our afternoons in the rain forest gyrating around a bonfire with a gourd strapped to our genitals while others of us are on the Internet researching new ways of preparing crème brûlée, these differences—runs the theory—are but superficial. Strip away the trappings of circumstance—the culture, the history, the knowledge—and the begourded fire dancers are no less intelligent than the crème brûleurs.

Back in the states, serving me tea in his Manhattan apartment, Robert Klitzman, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, explained to me that this concept was vividly demonstrated—if not in fact proved—one day back in 1990, a mere three years into the mad cow nightmare. Klitzman was in England for a wedding and during a break in the festivities had gone romping across the Yorkshire dales with a band of friends. The laws of thermodynamics being what they are, the group eventually became hungry and stopped at a quaint and picturesque “inne” to have lunch. Menus were distributed—by the buxom innkeeper’s daughter, if traditions were being followed—which was when an event occurred that was to shock Klitzman. Shock him, at the risk of overdramatizing the thing, literally to his very core: His companions ordered the beef.

“But aren’t you afraid of mad cow disease?” spluttered Klitzman.

They waved him off. Nah, they told him essentially. The government had assured them beef was safe, and besides, they were British. Eating beef was a cornerstone of their culture. He, Klitzman, was American.They didn’t expect him to understand.

Klitzman’s chicken arrived and—I’m speculating here—he chewed it in thoughtful silence, his gaze settling on a porcelain cow that adorned the ancient oak mantelpiece, as the hostelry succumbed to the pervasive and increasingly wavy lines that signal a remembrance of things past. .. .

For if there was one thing Robert Klitzman knew, it was the stubborn bravado of those facing a horrific death from a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. As he told me and recounted in his (excellent) memoirs, The Trembling Mountain, Klitzman spent a year with the Fore (FOR-ay) tribe of Papua New Guinea, who are, along with the inhabitants of the British Isles, still the only two known human populations to have ever been threatened with virtual extinction at the hands of a submicroscopic particle known as a prion.

The scourge of the Fore was a disease they called kuru, a degenerative and always fatal brain disease contracted by eating the corpse of a previous sufferer. That at least was what scientists spent the middle part of the 20th century trying to impress upon the Fore—who were having none of it. Pshaw, they said essentially. Kuru is clearly the work of sorcerers and/or evil spirits, and besides, we’re Fore. Steaming the corpses of our loved ones in banana leaves and then feasting on the flesh is a cornerstone of our culture.

Fortunately for the Fore—at least if one prioritizes physical health above the mental sort—after World War II, Papua New Guinea was overrun by Christian missionaries, who managed to convince them that eating one another was a bad idea for spiritual reasons rather than microbiological ones. By the 1960s, cannibalism had been all but eradicated, and very, very gradually—kuru’s average incubation period may be up to 45 years—people stopped dying. The epidemic came and went,in other words, without the Fore ever really understanding what caused it.

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