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How Now, Mad Cow?
— by Lee Pitts

All the recent media attention regarding Mad Cow Disease has raised some interesting questions. Such as...

Mad Cow Disease and been around for 15 years yet animal industries around the globe have used meat and bone meal as a feed ingredient since World War II. Why has BSE waited until now to raise its ugly head?

Britain stopped exporting contaminated cattle feed to other European countries in 1991. So why are cases of Mad Cow springing up now in places like Germany ten years later?

In France the number of infected cows doubled in the last year while in most other EU countries the number of Mad Cows has already peaked and declined. Why?

British scientists and officials respond that BSE and new variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease, the human form of the disease, both have long incubation periods and that explains the delayed fuse on the BSE time bomb that has ravaged the cattle business in the European Union. But what if the scientists and bureaucrats are wrong?

They´ve been wrong before you know.

He´s No "Nutter"

There was a time in the not too far distant past when the British government insisted there was no connection between cattle with Mad Cow Disease (BSE) and Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (CJD). But after much research, politicking, media scrutiny, and arm twisting, British government officials were later forced to admit that it was indeed possible to contract CJD by eating infected beef. So why should we believe these same people now when they were wrong before? Suppose most of everything the scientists have told us about BSE is wrong?

The accepted theory is that Mad Cow Disease is caused by a transmissible protein called a prion (pronounced "pree-on") that makes normal cells mutate, thus creating holes in the brain. It´s a relatively new theory as medicine goes, and we should stress, that´s all it is . . . a theory. The results of the brain-wasting disease are NOT theoretical however. CJD and BSE turn the brain into Swiss cheese and the victim into a vegetable. The disease is slow, untreatable, incurable and ALWAYS fatal. Other than those facts everything else we think we know about the disease, according to one intelligent, courageous organic farmer in England, could prove to be incorrect.

To outdoor sports enthusiasts the name "Purdey" is synonymous with fine shotguns. A descendant of those gun makers has been trying to shoot down conventional wisdom regarding Mad Cow Disease for over sixteen years. Once upon a time in Britain, Mark Purdey was considered a "nutter," a whacko. But not any more, as more and more scientists are beginning to take the man seriously.

BSE was first detected in Britain in 1986. At the time Purdey was an organic dairyman with a 60 head cow herd. Up until that time Mark Purdey was known mostly for refusing government orders to treat his 60 cows with an organophosphate called "Phosmet." Purdey went to court with the Agriculture Ministry of Britain because he and other British organic farmers did not want to be forced to pour a systemic organophosphate, derived from military nerve gas, along the spine of their cattle in the early 1980´s to kill the warble fly.

"Like most things the idea that a chemical was behind the brain wasting disease in cattle and humans was instinct," Purdey was quoted by Reuters. "Being a farmer, I was horrified when I was approached by a ministry official to treat a cow for warble fly by pouring this chemical along the spinal cord and the base of the head. It was an oil designed to seep through the skin and to change the entire internal environment of the cow into a poisonous medium to kill off the parasite."

Circumstantial Evidence

Purdey contends there has never been a confirmed case of Mad Cow Disease among any of the organically raised cattle that were NOT treated with Phosmet in Britain! Even though the organic animals had been fed the same meat and bone meal that was supposed to be the causative agent of BSE. On all the other cattle in thirty UK counties the organophosphate was used, and used heavily. Yes, Phosmet had been used before around the world, including the US, but never at the extremely high dose levels being used in Britain.

To prove his theory that meat and bone meal did not CAUSE Mad Cow Disease, Purdey was forced to become a self-trained scientist. He began by asking simple questions. Questions that had never been satisfactorily answered by existing science. (Keep in mind this was over fifteen years ago).

"At the time meat and bone meal had been sold all over the world," says Purdey. "If you´re blaming this stuff and your sending it all over the world, why aren´t you getting more BSE?" he asked himself. Purdey´s answer: There had to be a missing part of the equation.

Prions, the brain proteins whose mutation seems to be responsible for BSE, protect the brain from the oxidizing properties of chemicals activated by agents such as ultraviolet light. The conclusion that Purdey eventually came to is that prion proteins mutate when they are exposed to too little copper and too much manganese. It just so happens that Phosmet captures copper, making it unavailable for the prions to normally bind to it. Filling copper´s void was manganese. When this happened, according to Purdey, the protein became distorted, lost their function in the brain and presto...Swiss cheese. Furthermore, at the same time that Phosmet was mandatorily being given to British cattle it was also a widespread practice to supplement the cattle with chicken manure, from birds dosed with manganese to increase their egg yields. Thus, the prion proteins in the cow´s brains were being deprived of copper and doubly dosed with manganese at the same time.

The Common Denominator

If true, Purdey´s theory would answer a few troubling questions. Such as...

Why does Britain have the most cases of BSE? Because Phosmet was used almost exclusively there in such large doses.

What causes the brain lesions? Organophosphate have been proven in the lab to be toxic to the brain and capable of causing Mad Cow like lesions on human brains. Purdey disputes the claim that BSE is passed to humans via infected beef. "If it was to do with eating beef we´d have lots of cases in towns where most burger bars are, but 60% of cases are in rural areas." What happens in rural areas that does not take place in cities? "Most victims live by fields where crops are sprayed," says Purdey. And sometimes the fields were sprayed with organophosphates.

To test his theory, Purdey has traveled to the US, Slovakia, Italy and even Iceland to see if he could find a common denominator. He did. What Purdey theorized over a decade ago has now been supported by laboratory tests conducted by David Brown, a neurobiologist at Cambridge University. Late last year his team discovered that when copper was substituted by manganese on prion proteins, the prions adopted precisely the distinguishing features which identify the infective agent in BSE.

When Purdey looked at the distribution in Britain of the human form of the disease he again found a common thread. There were basically two primary clusters of people who had died from BSE, one in Kent in the middle of a fruit and hop growing area where huge quantities of both organic phosphates and manganese-based fungicides were used. The other was an area in Leicestshire, whose dyeworks, Purdey alleges, used to dump residues into the sewage system. The sewage from the dyeworks was then spread over the fields. Manganese was a common ingredient in the dyes and manganese based organophosphates were also sprayed on crops in the area.

As mentioned, Purdey also traveled to the United States. Why here, after all, we have never had a case of BSE? But a similar spongiform disease was first found in deer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in 1969. Since then the disease has been found among deer and elk up and down the Front Range. (See February Field and Stream for an interesting article). How were the deer catching the BSE-like disease? After all, they were not being fed meat and bone meal.

Purdey found a high level of selenium fallout in the area due to the presence of three cement factories. He also discovered concentrations of selenium in the soil and plants which concentrated it in their leaves and stems, which were then eaten by the deer. Purdey was told that organophosphate pesticides had been commonly sprayed on alfalfa in the area. Farmers said that it had been a common sight to see deer in the alfalfa fields eating the alfalfa after it had been sprayed with organophosphates.

Purdey also found that trout in the region suffer from a similar brain-wasting disease known as "whirling disease." Could it be from digesting too much organophosphate that entered the area´s streams as runoff?

Purdey´s theory is gaining more and more acceptance as illustrated by a November, 2000 article by George Monbiot in the highly regarded Guardian publication. Wrote Monbiot, "The most interesting aspect of France´s BSE scandal is that it makes no sense at all. Britain stopped exporting contaminated cattle feed to Europe in 1991 though we continued sending it to the third world until 1996. In most other EU countries cases have already peaked and declined as expected. But in France the number of infected animals has doubled in the last year. It is impossible to see how this pattern could result from the export of British bone meal."

In France the use of Phosmet first became mandatory in the region known as Brittany. Twenty of the country´s initial 28 cases of BSE emerged there, according to Purdey. BSE´s subsequent spread in France mirrors the use of the use of Phosmet.

"The simple fact is," wrote Monbiot, "that the transmission of BSE has never been satisfactorily explained by the prevailing theory. The consumption of meat and bone meal from infected cows has doubtless had an important role to play. Yet this explanation alone fails to account for the huge numbers of cattle in Britain which continue to become infected after most contaminated feed had been removed from the food chain. The latest research on human form of disease (published in October) failed to find any link with the consumption of infected beef," wrote Monbiot.

Spreading Like Buckshot

It´s hard for the British government, drug or chemical companies to paint Purdey as a numskull when his articles keep ending up in highly respected scientific journals. Purdey wrote five years ago in Med-Hypotheses about the flaws in Britain´s official hypothesis that BSE originated from alterations in the way that cattle feeds were manufactured in the UK. Instead, he proposed that exposure of the bovine embryo to high doses of organophosphates, like Phosmet, was the primary trigger that initiated the deformation of prion proteins and the onset of the BSE epidemic.

All of Purdey´s writings that this editor has read are filled with uncommon common sense. Such as: "If a cow had lead encephalopathy and a human had it too, you wouldn´t think the human had eaten the cow in order to get the disease. You would assume that both human and a cow had eaten lead based paint or some other common source of lead," says Purdey. "If you inject any malformed protein into a healthy animal that will induce a malformed prion. You can inject Alzheimer´s into someone and get the same thing, but no one thinks we´ve eaten something in order to get Alzheimer´s."

Response to Purdey initially was predictable by the men "in bow ties", as Purdey refers to them. The British government attacked his theory, he was misquoted and physically attacked. According to the Guardian, Purdey has been shot at, his phone lines have been cut and his house was burnt to the ground.

"My feeling," wrote Purdey, "is it´s a political game. Animal Health in Edinburgh and the Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary´s in London, they´re all really under the British government´s thumb. None of them are independent. Research may be genuine, but the interpretations political. Scientists know that if they go against the government or multinational corporations, they will lose their job or your funding. It´s a terrible situation in the UK." Monbiot agrees: "The ministry of Agriculture for 50 years has enjoyed a dangerously close relationship with the chemical industry, and has repeatedly sought to discredit him (Purdey)."

Purdey thinks the reason is obvious why folks went to such lengths to censure him: "No one is prepared to admit it because it would involve massive compensation. By keeping the casual agent as something mystified, no one is to blame."

Slowly, however, the British government is coming around, even indicating it may help finance Purdey´s research which, until now, has been financed out of his own pocket. But even now the British government is not helping for the right reasons. According to Monbiot, "The families of French victims are threatening to sue the British government, and it desperately needs an alternative transmission theory."

The shot fired by Purdey is now spreading like buckshot. "With funding on its way and new evidence accumulating every month," wrote Monbiot, "a self educated Somerset dairy farmer could be about to overturn the entire body of scientific research on the biggest public health scandal of modern times."