I was going to write another The End Is Near sort of essay about the discovery of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), AKA mad cow disease, but decided that if you really want to hear the bad news, you just need to go to www.mad-cow.org (note the link to recent BSE news at organicconsumers.org/madcow.htm) and read for yourself. You can also read the piece I wrote for The Stranger four months ago on BSE and similar diseases that are killing deer, elk, and, possibly, the hunters who eat them ("Cannibal Cows and Dying Deer," August 21). A brief summary, though, just in case:

Basically, what we witnessed over the holidays was some pretty irresponsible reassurance that our meat supply is safe, that our BSE detection system works, and that this was probably an isolated incident. Ann M. Veneman, head of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Governor Gary Locke immediately began performing the 21st-century political media ritual of publicly broadcasting their beef-eating after a BSE discovery. Locke: "I intend to have prime rib on Christmas." Veneman: "I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner." None of this is any big surprise given that our mad cow disease surveillance system, which Veneman oversees, seems to have been designed more to prevent the detection of BSE than anything else.

How else is it possible to explain this story that appeared in the New York Times: In May of this year, Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the guy who won the Nobel Prize for his research into prions--abnormal proteins that cause BSE in cows and a similar disease in humans--finally met with Ann Veneman (after being rebuffed) and told her that "it was just a matter of time" before BSE appeared in the U.S., and that we should immediately start testing every cow showing signs of illness and eventually every cow upon slaughter. The Times report continues: "A spokeswoman for Ms. Veneman, Julie Quick, said: 'We have met with many experts in this area, including Dr. Prusiner. We welcome as much scientific input and insight as we can get on this very important issue. We want to make sure that our actions are based on the best available science.'" A rational person might think that Prusiner's opinion was the best available science. His recommendations, however, were ignored, as rational people are not running the USDA.

Washington State's mad cow wasn't discovered until after it had been processed into hamburger and other products (just like about 200,000 other "downer" cows--cows that are too sick to stand--every year), and possibly shipped to grocery stores in a dozen or more states. To calm consumers' fears, USDA chief Ann Veneman and other meat industry spokespeople have been reciting some version of "The brain and spinal cord were removed from this cow, so don't worry!" Central nervous system (CNS) tissue is the part of the cow where BSE prions are most highly concentrated--the most infectious part of the animal.

Don't be comforted: A 2002 USDA study found "unacceptable" CNS residue, including spinal cord tissue, in 35 percent of the meat that ends up in processed meat items like hot dogs, pizza toppings, and hamburger. As it turns out: 1. Spinal cord is difficult to remove and bits tend to get left behind in the very rapid-paced slaughterhouse environment; 2. after ordinary slaughter, almost all cows in the country are processed using Advanced Meat Recovery Systems, which scour the carcass of as much leftover meat and, um, stuff as the machine can get, and this is known to scatter CNS tissue all over the place; 3. in any case, when the cow is killed with a bolt gun to the head (a practice known as stunning), brain tissue enters the bloodstream and is pumped into the rest of the body as the animal dies; and 4. when the cow is then sawed in half, right down the spine, it's another opportunity to splatter brains, spinal cord, and prions everywhere. (Here's a fun story about stunning that I didn't get to earlier: In a well-documented report by Dr. Michael Greger for the Organic Consumers Association, stunning was shown to be a very good way to spread prions. He wrote: "Medical science has known for over 60 years that people suffering head trauma can end up with bits of brain embolized into their bloodstream; so Texas A&M researchers wondered if fragments of brain could be found within the bodies of cattle stunned for slaughter. They checked and reportedly exclaimed, 'Oh, boy did we find it....' They concluded, 'It is likely that prion proteins are found throughout the bodies of animals stunned for slaughter.'")

Thus any official assurance that no brain or spinal cord entered the food supply from Washington State's mad cow rings hollow--and Veneman should know this.

Back to the cow in question: Why are U.S. consumers eating downer cows anyway? Only about 10 percent of downer cows are even tested for BSE, despite the fact that paralysis is a symptom of mad cow disease. It's routine for sick cows to be made into food. Last year KIRO 7 News conducted a six-month investigation into the practice, repeatedly videotaping USDA meat inspectors' approval of cows so unhealthy they had to be dragged into a Chehalis slaughterhouse. And as of September 2003, according to the Food and Drug Adminis- tration (FDA), at least four Washington feed companies were part of the 300 in violation nationally of the no-feeding-cows-to-cows feed ban enacted in 1997 intended to discourage the spread of BSE. A General Accounting Office study issued in 2000, three years after the ban, showed that 18 percent of feed processing firms did not even know the ban existed. Twenty-eight percent were not properly labeling feed prohibited for sale as cow feed. The FDA sent only two warning letters to feed mills violating the ban between 1997 and April 2001.

For this and other reasons, many industry observers have long asserted that American BSE testing standards and feed-ban enforcement are shamefully inadequate. In nine years, the U.S. has tested fewer than 30,000 out of about 300 million slaughtered cows, and that with an outdated test which yields results in days or weeks rather than the rapid tests used in Europe and Japan, where most or all cattle are tested--even cattle that show no signs of disease, which is crucial in distinguishing accurate BSE population numbers because of the disease's long incubation period. The United States also remains in violation of the 1996 World Health Organization guidelines designed to prevent the spread of BSE.

Even those thousands of tests that have supposedly been performed may be in question. In July of this year, United Press International (UPI) asked to see the USDA inspection records, but with no results; after numerous requests the USDA told UPI on December 17 that it is "still searching for documentation of its mad cow testing results from 2002 and 2003," and that "if any documents exist, they will be forwarded."

American officials are now saying that the Washington mad cow was born in Canada. Canadian officials dispute this, and indeed there seem to be many discrepancies in the records, even about such basics as the cow's age--something almost inevitable when you are talking about one element in a vast industrialized system. My two cents on this is that I am not pleased with the effort to connect our mad cow with Canada, and to use their bad luck against them at being the first country in North America officially infected with BSE, especially since we have traded large numbers of cattle back and forth for years. It could just have easily been us who found the first mad cow, and it is not fair to pass our negligence off on the peaceful, doughnut-eating, interesting-female-fiction-writer-producing Canadians, who actually had a similarly inadequate BSE monitoring system but who do not deserve to be made scapegoats in this situation. Shame on the Canada blamers.

So it's all bad, and we're all gonna die of spongy brain disease in five or 10 or 20 years. Or not. It is true that muscle meat does not have nearly the concentration of prions that CNS tissue does, and it's certainly true that prion research is in its infancy. And while people in a panic return unopened packs of hot dogs to Safeway, and various nations ban imports of American beef, we might want to pause and consider that only about 150 people worldwide have died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD, the human transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (the human prion disease). You have a better chance of dying in childbirth. And if you stopped eating beef this week but are still smoking, well, maybe you should rethink your dying-a-slow-horrible-death risk factors.

Oh, but if I may be hysterical again for just a moment: It turns out that regular ol' Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) may be spread by eating mad cows. Previously it was thought to only arise spontaneously in one in a million people, and then only in people over the age of about 60. Only variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) was thought to come from eating mad cows. However, "ordinary" CJD cases seem to be increasing, and there are more cases among younger people, including in the United States--a warning flag for transmission from mad cow. But the picture is muddied and will likely be for some time. Only 12 states even consider CJD a reportable disease, and CJD is often confused with other conditions. An autopsy is required for definitive diagnosis, but they are rarely performed these days. If we saw more autopsies, we might see more work like the 1989 study by a Yale neurologist showing that 13 percent of Alzheimer's patients actually had CJD. Currently, two percent of American deaths each year are from Alzheimer's--way behind the 29 percent for heart disease, but not an insignificant number.

So if it turns out that ordinary CJD is also transmitted from eating mad cows, and that there are many misdiagnosed Alzheimer's cases, suddenly a whole lot more people will be dying of mad cow disease. Some Internet rant suggested that we should just give up and consider BSE to be one of the risks involved with eating meat, along with salmonella, E. coli, and heart disease. Interesting idea. If the world continues to be infected with BSE then this may very well be the case, and rather than just a few hours of puking and diarrhea, or the odd heart attack, every meat eater will instead be entertaining the possibility of dementia and a yearlong wasting death.

But enough drama! I'm tired of these histrionics! What's really interesting to me about mad cow disease is that it represents the transformation of a few 20th-century cultural paradigms.

1. It breaks down the human/animal barrier, and species barriers in general. Prion disease from one animal enters the body of another and transforms into a version that can kill that second animal. And it may be that some animals (perhaps pigs, which are still allowed to be fed dead cows, and then these pigs are fed to cows, or to humans, when they are dead) act as silent asymptomatic transmitters of the disease.

2. Medically, it challenges the idea that disease can be understood best in terms of short-term cause-effect relationships (exposure to virus = the flu; pulling a tiny balloon through your arteries = unclogging; five-minute physician visit = diagnosis) and a distinct, analytical focus on various organ systems (cardiologists don't think much about digestion, for instance). Thus it is disconcerting that the brain disease you have now could be caused by something that entered your stomach 20 years ago. And on a practical level, the weird and scary resistance of prions to just about all known methods of disinfection--CJD has been transmitted via sterilized surgical instruments and, just recently, by blood transfusion--renders a great deal of standard hospital practice obsolete.

3. Environmentally, though it provides yet another example of Big Evil Industry Trashes All It Surveys in Order to Profit a Handful of White Guys and Blanket the Earth with Cheap Consumer Goods, it also demonstrates the intimacy of animal-human relationships, particularly that which we have with food animals--something that doesn't always come through in the usual climate/air/water concerns. We tend not to fully appreciate the concept of "you are what you eat," but then again we live in a culture that operates under the assumption that we exist in a little bubble separately from nature.

4. Finally, the complexity of the situation demonstrates the inadequacies of the simplistic approach favored by most media and most politicians, and shows that public debate about lots of things, not just mad cows, is desperately in need of subtlety. This is perhaps due to economics, since reducing communication mostly to discussion of profit margins has a way of removing anything complicated, ambiguous, or messy. The American beef industry stands to take a big hit from the mad cow discovery, and though I think it deserves it, I also hope that the money issue does not overshadow what could be a worthwhile rethinking of how the meat industry operates.

In case you were wondering, I do eat meat (and really like eating it), but do so only about twice a month. I only buy organic meat, and the handful of times I've eaten beef in the past 10 years have been either in restaurants or as a dinner guest. My major contact with industrial beef in the past decade has been as food for my dog.

I did grow up eating meat pretty regularly, though much of it was either grown on my parents' hobby farm (rabbits, chickens, ducks, and lamb) or hunted by my dad. (I console myself by thinking that most of the Wisconsin venison I've consumed was from deer that lived prior to the appearance of chronic wasting disease, the deer and elk prion disease, in that state.) Even if I managed not to catch CJD from my meat eating, though, I could have had abnormal prions injected into me along with the tetanus shot I got a couple of years ago. Bovine serum is commonly used in most vaccines. Since this serum is sometimes derived from calves, there is some consolation, but not much--mother-fetal transmission has apparently already happened in both cattle and humans. Even calves born without BSE may get it from the freakish and common practice of feeding calves cows' blood as a milk substitute, a practice that does seem pretty stupid, given that cows have brain tissue exploded into their bloodstreams routinely on slaughter.

I wouldn't mind eating beef more regularly again, because, after all, it can be extremely tasty (believe it or not, working on this story made me really want some of my mom's pot roast)--but it would have to be produced on a small, family-run, non-factory farm. And if I wanted to make that Julia Child meatloaf again, I would think about grinding the beef myself. Because I don't think anyone should eat industrial hamburger, not even my dog.

One of the last burgers I ate was in Seattle. Once upon a time, premenstrual and craving iron, I took a break from being a vegetarian, left the Stranger offices, and walked over to Dick's on Broadway, where I had a delicious cheeseburger. But that was before I knew about prions or BSE or vCJD or calves being fed cows' blood or Advanced Meat Recovery Systems that result in central nervous system tissues winding up in 35 percent of processed meats. Hamburger just isn't fit for human consumption--a fact that Governor Locke seems to recognize. During the press conference where Locke made the obligatory reference to serving his family meat after mad cow was discovered--"I intend to have prime rib on Christmas"--Locke was asked by a reporter if he would feed his children hamburger. Locke didn't answer the question, which I'll take as a "no."

And now, to wrap things up, let's return to hysterics. "The End Is Near!" pronouncements are to be expected in the alternative press (remember the pieces this paper ran about the impending Y2K catastrophe?), so instead of me going on and on about the horror of it all, let's check in with America's leading industry-friendly paper. How's the mad cow story playing on the cover of the Wall Street Journal? Sounds pretty bad even there. Some quotes from the Friday, December 26, edition: "

The first U.S. case of mad-cow disease almost certainly was found by fluke.... The impact of one cow is so dramatic because she introduces a horrific and incurable disease to U.S. shores.... The appearance of one case of mad-cow disease in the U.S. almost certainly means that others will be discovered.... While the U.S. has been more aggressive at dealing with mad cow than most countries that have yet to discover it, it does far less than nations that have found the disease in their herds. Among other things, the U.S. has yet to require the testing of cattle before they are slaughtered or to even ban the consumption of material that harbors the disease, which is the brain and spinal cord. Such materials are often included in processed meats, including bologna, hot dogs, and sausages."

Pretty scary stuff. But for folks who prefer to look on the bright side, there was this reassuring headline on the front page of the Seattle Times: "Mad-cow disease hits state; feds say beef 'absolutely safe.'" And the feds wouldn't lie to us, would they?

Christine Wenc is the former editor of The Stranger. She is currently working on a PhD at Harvard in environmental history and the history of medicine.