Mad Cow Disease

Mad Cow Disease

Mad Cow Disease

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Jan. 26 2001 8:30 PM

Mad Cow Disease

The killer illness for a new world order.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

It has become very dangerous to be a pig in Europe. In the last several months, the mad cow disease hysteria that has paralyzed Britain since the mid-'90s has crossed the Channel. France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy, among other nations, have discovered cows infected with the disease in their herds. Beef consumption has plunged in the European Union, dropping 50 percent in Germany alone. Germans, French, and Belgians are baying for the blood of their politicians, who lied and claimed local livestock were mad cow free. Two German ministers have been drummed out of office. France is prosecuting a farmer for intentionally selling an infected cow to a supermarket chain. At least one insurer has started offering discounts to vegetarians.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


Mad cow disease—officially Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy—is a world-class horror. Eating meat infected with it seems to be the cause of "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease" (nvCJD), an unbelievably gruesome, always fatal, brain-eating illness that has killed about 80 young Britons and a handful of other Europeans in the past five years. Click here for a rather revolting explanation of how the epidemic started and why it jumped from Britain to the continent. Warning: includes bovine cannibalism.

The United States has hardly blinked at the turmoil across the pond. No cases of BSE have been found here—we import no cow products from England—and the United States bans feeding cows supplements made from other cows. (A herd of Texas cattle was quarantined this week after a cattle-feed maker violated that ban.) Still, there is some cause for concern. The United States forbids blood donations by people who spent more than six months in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996. And BSE-like illness is rampant in Western elk and deer herds.

NvCJD has killed fewer than 100 people, and the much-anticipated mass epidemic—one scientist predicted 130,000 British deaths—does not seem to be materializing. The number of cases is rising, but slowly. So why should mad cow disease provoke such a frenzy?

Mad cow fits the classic profile of a disease likely to cause hysteria. Ebola, AIDS, and polio—three of the most flamboyant illnesses of the century—overshadowed deadlier but less flashy plagues, such as malaria, for several reasons. First, the hysteria-inducing illnesses usually affect young people and strike in particularly gruesome ways. Ebola causes massive bleeding from every orifice. AIDS is responsible for grotesque cancers and infections. Polio paralyzed young children.


Second, at the moment of the panic—before much is learned about the disease's origin—everyone seems vulnerable, and it's not clear that prevention is possible. Maybe an Ebola victim flew in from the Congo and breathed on you! Maybe your dentist is HIV-positive! And finally, the disease organism is new and weird and seems to have sprung from a dark, mysterious place. AIDS is a creepy mutating monkey virus. Ebola remains a riddle: The Hot Zone traces it to the bats in a spooky East African cave.

Mad cow is similarly vicious, unstoppable, and mysterious. It murders by driving its young victims insane, then melting their brains. It theoretically puts anyone who ever ate English beef at risk. It was spawned in the miasma of rendering plants and slaughterhouses, our own hell's kitchens. And the disease organism is a mystery. Some scientists say it is a new kind of infectious agent, a malicious, twisted protein called a "prion." Others blame a "slow virus," but they can't find it. Whatever it is, nobody has the vaguest idea how to kill it.

But perhaps the crucial reason mad cow grips Europe is its cultural resonance. Every culture gets the disease it deserves. Polio struck an America midway to urbanization: It was so threatening because it seemed vengeful confirmation that American cities were foul, murderous places. AIDS became an obsession because it nourished existing anxieties about the sexual revolution and gay rights.

Mad cow is a rage because it encapsulates the dreads and frets of today's Europe. Europe—unlike the United States—has been seized by fears of genetically modified food and scientific meddling in agriculture. Mad cow perfectly fulfills those fears. Corporate agriculture, by turning cows into cannibals, has made them killers. Nature is biting back.


Mad cow also heightens European suspicion of globalism. Europe is a continent of Naderites, and mad cow is their nightmare, a disease that has spread because of poorly regulated, corporate-dominated, transnational agriculture. Government lies have only magnified the belief that politicians are in cahoots with big business. The whitewashes in Britain, Germany, and France were vain efforts to protect national beef industries, efforts that both failed and increased mistrust of government.

Most of all, mad cow has come to exemplify what's worrisome about the European Union. The crisis reveals how porous the continent has become: Union means that everyone is connected in a web of business and agriculture. But those connections can be alarming.

Anti-union, nationalistic mutterings have been percolating for years, notably in England and France. Mad cow is turning muttering into real animus. The BSE panic is setting nation against nation in a way that Europe has not seen for decades. Most of the continent is enraged at Great Britain for spreading the disease. Britain, in turn, is almost gloating that the rest of Europe is mishandling the problem as badly as it did. Austria, which is disease-free, suspects that German cows are infecting its herds. Germany, France, England, and Italy are at each other's throats. Countries have issued beef bans and counterbans. Jon Cohen, author of Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, says that mad cow is legitimizing centuries of distrust. "The French and the British are saying to each other, 'Just as we believed all along, you are poisonous to our culture.' "

The European Union probably won't collapse over mad cow, but it certainly looks more fragile. One small disease is sowing enough rage and consternation to undo what it has taken 50 years of cool diplomacy and economic self-interest to put together. Mad cow is proving what Freudians have known all along: When it comes to brain diseases, the id out-muscles the superego every time.