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
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WALES. The old gray butcher is stooped and arthritic, hisblue-and-white–striped apron stained with blood. He thinks for severalmoments, then looks back at me, and then down at the floor, and thenback up again, right at me, peering into the eyes of this grizzledcorrespondent. “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 againat 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 ofthe shop, as generations of his family’s menfolk have stumbled before.I follow, and we stop before what Americans would call a cooler, inwhich Americans might store bottles of beer to toast the thrill ofbeing alive after they’ve white-water rafted or parked an SUV atop anunclimbable finger of rock in the painted southwestern desert.

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

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 variousother types of hippies that human beings are all essentially the same.Even though, yes, some of us do spend our afternoons in the rain forestgyrating around a bonfire with a gourd strapped to our genitals whileothers of us are on the Internet researching new ways of preparingcrème brûlée, these differences—runs the theory—are but superficial.Strip away the trappings of circumstance—the culture, the history, theknowledge—and the begourded fire dancers are no less intelligent thanthe crème brûleurs.

Back in the states, serving me tea in his Manhattan apartment,Robert Klitzman, a professor of clinical psychology at ColumbiaUniversity, explained to me that this concept was vividlydemonstrated—if not in fact proved—one day back in 1990, a mere threeyears into the mad cow nightmare. Klitzman was in England for a weddingand during a break in the festivities had gone romping across theYorkshire dales with a band of friends. The laws of thermodynamicsbeing what they are, the group eventually became hungry and stopped ata quaint and picturesque “inne” to have lunch. Menus weredistributed—by the buxom innkeeper’s daughter, if traditions were beingfollowed—which was when an event occurred that was to shock Klitzman.Shock him, at the risk of overdramatizing the thing, literally to hisvery 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 governmenthad assured them beef was safe, and besides, they were British. Eatingbeef 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 inthoughtful silence, his gaze settling on a porcelain cow that adornedthe ancient oak mantelpiece, as the hostelry succumbed to the pervasiveand increasingly wavy lines that signal a remembrance of things past. .. .

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

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

Fortunately for the Fore—at least if one prioritizes physical healthabove the mental sort—after World War II, Papua New Guinea was overrunby Christian missionaries, who managed to convince them that eating oneanother was a bad idea for spiritual reasons rather thanmicrobiological ones. By the 1960s, cannibalism had been all buteradicated, and very, very gradually—kuru’s average incubation periodmay be up to 45 years—people stopped dying. The epidemic came and went,in other words, without the Fore ever really understanding what causedit.

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