Craig Gordon of the website Now Age Press recently interviewed me. He was interested in the current situation with mad cow disease in the US, a subject Sheldon Rampton and I addressed in our prescient 1997 book Mad Cow USA. Craig also was curious about the origins of the Center for Media and Democracy and how issues as seemingly disparate as Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), Mad Cow Disease and Bush's war on Iraq all fall under our investigative lens. One common denominator of course is that all three issues have been carefully managed by professional spin doctors to keep Americans confused about the reality of each. "Perception management" is the PR term for this. Craig's interview with me is below, and you can also find it at the Now Age website.
CG: Your 1997 book Mad Cow USA, exposed how the deadly cattle and human dementia disease is spread via the feeding of cows on slaughterhouse waste. How did you become interested in the issue of mad cow disease?
JS: From 1988 to 1993 I worked with Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends. My assignment was to investigate Monsanto's genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone, a new drug designed to force dairy cows to give more milk when injected into them. I was contacted by a retired research veterinarian who warned me that if BGH was used in the US, it would increase the risk of mad cow disease in America. He explained that cows on BGH need supplemental fat and protein in their feed to avoid serious and immediate health problems from the drug and to make the drug work, and that already blood, fat, meat and bone meal from cows were being fed to cows in the US, on a much larger scale than had occurred in the UK where the practice spread mad cow disease.
I investigated and found his claims to be accurate. This was in the early 90s. By 1993 my efforts led to the Foundation on Economic Trends filing the first legal petition seeking an end to these dangerous feeding practices. Unfortunately the petition was denied. Today, over a decade later, many of these dangerous feeding practices continue to be widespread and legal in the US continue, and of course we now have mad cow disease here. BGH was approved in 1993 and is in wide use, and the cows that are injected are legally fed supplements that can include fat and blood from cattle, and fat, blood, meat and bone meal from pigs and chickens. The mad cow crisis in the US is being swept under the rung via industry and government PR and the failure of the news media to alert the public to the seriousness of this situation. Ignorance is bliss, and most Americans believe the media's reports that the government and industry have dealt effectively with this bizarre and dangerous human and animal dementia disease.
The 1997 book Mad Cow USA that Sheldon Rampton and I wrote predicted the emergence of mad cow in the US, and now our organization is working on a new book, probably out in 2006, updating the situation.
CG: How long have commercial farmers been feeding animal parts to cows, who graze on grass and hay, and what's the root of that practice?
JS: Slaughterhouse waste, the fifty percent of every animal that is unfit for human consumption, the guts and gristle and bone and fat, gets shipped to rendering plants. Everything from fast food fat to road-kill to slaughterhouse waste get cooked there in giant vats and made into a myriad of products. We're talking a massive amount of biological waste; something has to be done with it. In the 1970s and 1980s the industry began feeding fat and protein from rendering plants to animals as supplemental feed. This provided a new product for the rendering industry, and a cheap source of fat and protein supplement for the livestock industry. The practice really took off in the 1980s and today in the US billions of pounds of blood, fat, meat and bone meal are used this way.
The first mad cow appeared in Britain in about 1985, and by 1988 it had been discovered that the feeding of rendered by-products as animal feed was the source of the problem, amplifying and spreading mad cow disease via an infectious protein called the prion (pree' on). One sick animal would be slaughtered, fed to people and animals. Some of the animals it was fed to became sick, and when they were slaughtered and fed back to people and animals the problem amplified and spread. This type of disease is very invisible in people and animals. It can take up to 40 years for the disease to appear in an infected person, but once the brain become riddled with holes and plaque, dementia begins and a horrific death is inevitable.
The first humans confirmed as dying of mad cow disease were identified in mid 1990s in Britain, and now the death toll is around 150 world wide, most of them in Britain. Britain began banning the contaminated feed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also exported it, so that others countries have the disease. That may be how it came to North America a decade ago, not to be actually discovered until May, 2003, in the first Canadian animal with the disease. So far two animals in Canada and one in the US have been discovered with mad cow disease, but since they got if from infected North American cattle feed eaten long ago, the extent of the disease in North America is probably widespread.
CG: I've read that the symptoms of the human form of mad cow are similar to that of Alzheimer's Disease, and that the increase in Alzheimer's in the U.S. over the past ten years may actually be mad cow. Is there any truth to this path of reasoning?
JS: Alzheimer's currently affects four to five million Americans, and that number is steadily increasing. We do not know how many cases of CJD -- Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease -- might be hidden in this huge population of older people with dementia. Scientific studies that we cited in Mad Cow USA back in 1997 have long suggested that a quarter of all dementia diagnoses made while people are alive are incorrect, and that significant numbers of CJD cases are being misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's. Very, very few people who die of Alzheimer's and other dementias are ever examined in autopsy, and therefore any estimates of exactly which dementia diseases people are dying of, and in what numbers, are guesstimates. We urgently need to know how many people in the US have CJD, and we need facts based on new research, not guestimates.
It would be rather straightforward to design and execute significant studies to answer the urgent questions of which dementia diseases people have, and in what numbers, but to my knowledge no one in the scientific, medical or public health communities are even proposing this. Especially now that we have found mad cow disease in the US, along with mad deer, mad elk and mad sheep disease, we should be launching ongoing studies nation-wide to aggressively search for cases of CJD in the human population. We should be testing our human population for CJD; CJD should be made a carefully reported disease nation-wide. The 1993 legal petition that we filed when I was with the Foundation on Economic Trends sought as much from the federal government, but it was denied.
Unfortunately one knee-jerk bureaucratic response to a threat like mad cow disease is to say internally, 'we don't have it, and let's not go looking for it, because our plate is already full with other problems.' Externally you announce, 'we don't have this problem, and we're doing everything we can do to keep it that way.' But the reality is that you can't find a problem as hidden as the early stages of mad cow disease or CJD unless you search for it. When a deadly and mysterious food and blood-borne disease like CJD has such a long, invisible latency period -- up to 40 years -- you'd better act early using the precautionary principle, because by the time human deaths are noticed the problem is a disaster. Instead of using a scientific and precautionary approach, government and industry have denied, ignored and covered-up mad cow and its threat to humans. That was true when we first wrote Mad Cow USA in 1997, and it's true today in 2005 with mad cow disease proven to be in North America.
Of course, if you represent the short term financial and political interests of the meat. animal feed and livestock industry, and you hope to cover-up this problem, you want to make sure that no one is aggressively looking for mad cow in livestock or CJD in people. That, in my opinion, is why the US government forbids any private company in the US to test for mad cow disease. The US regulators and the giant meat industry whose interests they serve don't want cases of mad cow found. Nor do they want customers to be able to choose to purchase meat with a label that says 'this meat is from an animal that has tested free of mad cow disease.' Currently the American people believe that mad cow disease and CJD are no big deal and that the correct steps have been taken. Industry and government are spending millions on very successful PR efforts to keep Americans blissfully ignorant on this issue. The spinmeisters have easily manipulated the US media to echo their messages that no problems exist in the US. Of course, such blissful ignorance just guarantees that the problems will persist or worsen.
Whether it is attacking Iraq and launching a disastrous war under false pretenses, or failing to take the steps necessary to find and stop mad cow disease, we have a federal government that lies, misleads and endangers its people routinely, while the mainstream media fails to perform a meaningful watchdog role and instead becomes a propaganda arm for the government's official line. This is how propaganda works in 21st century America, in a government controlled by right wing anti-government zealots, with a corporate media dominated by a handful of giant companies all dependent on corporate advertising or, in the case of public broadcasting, corporate advertising and government grants.
CG: What can the American consumer do, if they want to safely consume beef products?
JS: Sheldon Rampton and I take the position in Mad Cow USA that this is not a problem best tackled on the individual level, but rather it is one that requires a precautionary approach and strong federal government action to protect public and animal health and the food and blood supply.
Unfortunately, even now with mad cow disease in the US, the US government is refusing to take the necessary measures that have been successfully applied in the UK, the EU nations and Japan. Those measures are really quite simple and effective and constitute two steps: 1.) a complete and total ban on using slaughter house waste -- primarily animal blood, protein and bone meal -- as food for livestock; 2.) testing of millions of animals and also adequate human surveillance to track mad cow-type diseases in both animals and people.
Rather than address the problem, the US is addressing the perception of the problem with media spin to convince Americans that mad cow disease is no big deal. The government and industry goal is to keep beef consumption high while arm twisting and cajoling other nations such as Japan to re-open their markets to US beef.
Americans should be outraged, and should contact elected representatives in Washington, DC, to demand that the US government adopt exactly the measures taken in other countries such as Britain and Japan. Americans should choose meat labeled as certified organic to avoid animals raised on rendered byproducts. Americans should also demand that the federal government allow US meat companies to test for mad cow disease and to label their products as having been tested. This would allow responsible companies, mostly smaller firms, to sell tested US meat both at home and abroad. US meat customers, like those in other countries, should be able to choose in a supermarket between tested and untested meats; currently, it is illegal according to the US Department of Agriculture for companies to test, label and sell mad cow-free meats.
There appears no chance that any meaningful regulatory changes are coming soon, so the best best for US meat eaters would be to avoid eating or buying any meat, especially beef, that isn't certified organic.
Remember, US meat is already banned in Europe because it is routinely raised with hormones and antibiotics to promote growth. Mad cow in America is one more good reason to reject industrial meat and go organic, or go vegetarian. Vegetarians, however, should not feel smug. If mad cow disease spreads into the US blood supply, as it appears to have done in Britain, everyone is at risk. There are also hundreds of US drugs made from animal products that are prescribed for vegetarians and carnivores alike, drugs that could transmit mad cow if the animals used are infected.
Mad cow disease is a problem that requires political action and individuals organizing and standing up to a corrupt government doing the bidding of Tyson, Swift, Cargill and other industry giants. A healthy blood supply, a safe food supply, and a government liberated from corporate lobbyists are the larger goals we need to secure.
CG: What is The Center for Media and Democracy, and what can consumers and activists expect to gain from supporting the organization?
JS: While investigating Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone in the early 90s I conducted investigations under the Freedom of Information Act which confirmed my suspicion that the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration were colluding with Monsanto to promote BGH. I was also spied upon by the Burson-Marsteller PR firm which was working for the developers of BGH and which set up a phony consumer group to infiltrate a meeting of BGH opponents. My investigation obtained internal PR documents showing exactly how Monsanto and its allies from the American Medical Association to Philip Morris Kraft were successfully manipulating media coverage of the BGH issue.
I decided to start the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy to continue investigating and exposing how corporate and government PR campaigns work to undermine the public interest and thwart democracy. My first project was to begin publishing our quarterly newsmagazine PR Watch in 1993. Since then our organization has grown to a staff of six, we've written five books on the topic of spin and deception including a New York Times bestseller "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq", and we've launched a new website called www.Disinfopedia.org that is pioneering collaborative investigative reporting.
We are always in need of financial support, but to protect our independence we refuse to accept corporate or government grants. We do accept appropriate foundation grants, and we list our foundation funders on our website. We rely on individual contributors to support our work, and anyone who contributes at least $35 receives our PR Watch quarterly for a year.
Today we remain the leading, almost the only, public interest group focused like a laser on the business of propaganda and what is called "perception management" by firms like Burson-Marsteller. The truth is that the US is the most propagandized society in the world because it is here where the most advertising and PR dollars are spent. Our mission is to help journalists, activists, academics and citizens at large understand and counter organized propaganda. Democracy will only survive to the degree that citizens see through the deceptions and manipulations of professional propagandists.
I would ask anyone who uses our work to consider contributing to our organization. What we do is expensive and time consuming, and we need public support. That said, I would also encourage everyone to subscribe to our free Weekly Spin listserve. Once a week you'll receive an email containing a dozen or so articles on the propaganda behind the news. It's free, and it's essential to understanding the difference between news and propaganda.
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