Column: Sorting out ballyhooed mad cow and foot-and-mouth

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 24, 2001

It hasn’t been a good decade to be a cow.

Saturday, March 24, 2001

It hasn’t been a good decade to be a cow.

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Well, no time is really a good time to be a cow – you’re born, you’re weaned off your mother’s milk, and you spend your days being squeezed for cheese or grazing passively on livestock death row, waiting to become a few hundred Quarter Pounders. Unless you get one of those cushy petting-zoo gigs, that is, but those are rare.

These last ten years have been worse, in Europe, at least. First, Mad Cow Disease tore a path of destruction across Great Britain, with 180,000 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom through December 2000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The government decreed that all livestock suspected of having the disease be destroyed. It wasn’t fast enough to prevent nearly 100 human deaths in Europe after people ate infected meat.

Now, a less potent but highly infectious disease, Foot-and-Mouth Disease, is making headlines. And we’re even hearing rumblings about Mad Cow in America, where herds of sheep have been seized in Vermont upon suspicion they may have a different version of the disease.

We’ve heard an earful about Mad Cow and Foot-and-Mouth in recent months, but I found myself at a loss to explain exactly what these diseases were – and why we should be worried way out here in snowy, serene Minnesota. Foot and Mouth Disease? I’m pretty sure our governor has a bad case of Foot in Mouth Disease, but that’s not the same thing.

So, I did a little research. Mad Cow Disease is the popular term for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a transmissible, degenerative and fatal brain disease in cattle. It takes four to five years for the disease to incubate, but it’s always fatal among cattle after its onset, the WHO says. That means a cow could have the disease for four or five years and appear fine before something started to go wrong.

Studies in the UK suggest we can blame cannibal cows, in a nutshell. Cattle feed made from carcasses of cows, sheep, goats and the like were apparently spreading the disease.

It was mostly a European outbreak in the early-to-mid 1990s, with a few cases reported in Canada. Since the UK began fighting the disease, it has declined steadily after peaking in 1992-1993.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) is different. It’s not fatal in livestock, and the only recorded case among humans was in 1966 in the UK. It causes fevers and blistering on the feet and in the mouths of the affected animals – bingo, there’s where the name comes from.

After Mad Cow practically destroyed the British beef industry, Foot and Mouth is another setback. As of noon, British time, on Friday, 488 cases of FMD have been confirmed in Britain, and a few cases have popped up in other western European countries like Ireland and the Netherlands.

Even though it isn’t deadly, FMD can cause chronic lameness, low milk production, sterility and abortion. Because of the economic consquences of the fast-spreading disease, Britain has ordered infected animals slaughtered. Even Minnesota has got a plan in case it ever shows up here.

Stuff like this makes me think about what I’m eating. My parents were beef eaters when I grew up – the question wasn’t what we were having for dinner, it was what ground beef dish haven’t we had in a couple weeks. I’ve started eating less and less beef since I’ve been married, but still enjoy a good burger, or a dish like goulash, or tater-tot hot dish, or chili.

I’ve never considered becoming a vegetarian, but if I ever did, my wife discovered a great way to make it possible for a beef eater like me. Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) – sounds yummy, doesn’t it – is a dried product that purports to be a meat substitute with all the nutrition and protein you’d get from meat. The stuff is versatile, easy to make and incredibly cheap. I filled up a bag with several cups of the stuff down at Wintergreen Natural Foods in Albert Lea, and it still didn’t cost a buck.

We got a hold of a TVP cookbook and learned how to make burritos, sloppy joes, meatballs, and more, using a cup or two of dried TVP and a creative blend of spices. Some of the recipes are so-so, but others, like the sloppy joes, are an admirable imitation of the beef version; I almost forget it’s not beef.

So, if Mad Cow ever rears its angry head on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve got a backup plan.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at