Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


January 2001
The Circle of Poison: Mad Cow Disease in Europe and What Could be in Store for the U.S.
The Satya Interview with Howard Lyman


Howard Lyman was a fourth generation farmer in Montana for almost 40 years. His farming experiences include working in a large organic dairy, raising beef cattle and owning a large factory feedlot. In 1979, Lyman was paralyzed from the waist down due to a rare tumor on his spinal cord. His recovery served as a period of transformation and, thereafter, Lyman sold his farm and dedicated himself to work on behalf of small family farmers and sustainable agriculture.

In 1996, Lyman appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” where he spoke about how the meat industry is potentially exposing American consumers to mad cow disease by feeding cattle the remains of farmed animals—including other cows. As a result of his and Winfrey’s remarks, the Texas ranchers in Amarillo brought suit against them in the now famous “veggie libel” case. In his book
Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat (Scribner, 1998) Lyman tells the story of how he went from steak-eating rancher to vegetarian and food safety activist. Satya asked Howard to give some perspective on the current alarm in Europe over outbreaks of BSE and to reflect on what it might mean for America.

What do you think about the current European reaction to outbreaks of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease?
I think the Europeans today are basically expressing the outrage that most consumers have for their government lying to them over the years—saying that our meat is safe, that there’s nothing to worry about. Now all of a sudden governments are finding out that they may have put the whole country at risk.

Why isn’t that sense of alarm happening here in the U.S.?
I think that we’re looking at a progression. We saw BSE show up first in England and everybody denied it in Europe. Now we’re seeing it happen in France, though at first they denied it. They denied it was happening in Germany and now it’s happening there. It’s just a matter of time. We should have learned from this and I don’t think we have.

Apparently the German government is growing critical of factory farming, and you recently told me that the Chancellor has even publicly identified it as a cause of the spread of BSE.
Almost everyone would agree that the amplification of mad cow disease has come about because of the way we are treating and feeding animals in confinement. That is, factory farming. The amplification of this disease did not happen when the animals were treated as nature intended. In Germany they have smaller farms and they have a much higher regard for their agricultural producers than we do here. Then the Chancellor in Germany came out—and remember he’s under a lot of pressure because they look at that industry as a national treasure—and, all of a sudden, Germans are saying, “Oh my God, our meat is contaminated. What caused it?” It’s a fair conclusion to draw that factory farming is the cause of its spread. I can see where a person in Germany could say, “Why don’t we go back to the root cause? Why don’t we get rid of it? Why don’t we go back to what we knew was safe for hundreds of years?”

I didn’t hear anything about the Chancellor’s remarks here.
I wouldn’t have heard about it if it were not for the fact that I’ve been so involved in this issue and that people in Europe send me email and newspaper clippings. It is not something that the U.S. press wants to report on. Just open up any newspaper and count the inches of ads that come from the grocery industry. Then ask yourself: are they looking for a way to jab that industry in the eye? No.

I understand that it is actually very difficult to conclusively test cows for BSE.

The difficulty is that the only way you can confirm a case of mad cow disease is after the animal is dead and the brain removed and put under the microscope. That procedure takes a considerable amount of time. It’s not about being able to kill the animal, put a drop of dye on it and look at it and say, “Yup, this one’s infected. That one isn’t.”

It is not shown to be 100 percent effective, but they now have a couple of tests where they can kill the animal and take a biopsy of the brain, add a dye to it, and within 24 hours, they can tell whether the animal has spongiform disease. That’s a good thing because at least now they can determine whether or not the animal was infected before the animal leaves the slaughterhouse. Whether this is going to work is yet to be seen.

Look at it this way: if today you wanted to donate blood, the American Red Cross will ask whether you have spent six months in England, and if you have, they won’t take your blood because of the concern that blood is a carrier of the prion that causes CJD [see Sidebar]. Well, what do you have in the slaughterhouse? A guy slaps the animal in the head with a captive bolt pistol which has been shown to drive parts of the brain all the way to the heart. In the time that it takes them to shackle ‘em up, hang ‘em up and cut their throats, do they change knives between every animal that they kill? If you have one that’s contaminated are you contaminating another one?

But in England, when they actually banned the feeding of dead cows, sheep and goats back to cows, sheep and goats, they found that it was an absolute failure because nobody paid any attention to it. That’s what we’re doing here in this country. What makes you think that when a slaughterhouse buys an animal and they test it for BSE that they are going to say “this one just has a slight case and we’ll leave it in or we’ll throw it out”? If it’s thrown out, what are we going to do with it? You can’t grind it up; you can’t feed it back to another animal. If you incinerate it the ash is still infectious. We’ve got some major, major problems here. It will be better if we can tell which one’s are infected, but personally as a consumer, I think the only safe thing is to basically say, only feed meat to your mother-in-law.

In Europe they have already destroyed millions of cows, and now they’re talking about killing at least two million more. How do you “exterminate” them and what do you do with the remains?
In England, 4.5 million cattle were killed and incinerated at 1,100 degrees centigrade. They stored the ash in World War II blimp hangars because it’s still infectious and they don’t know where to put it. In France they kill the entire herd when an animal is diagnosed as having BSE. But I believe that all they are doing is burying them on the farm where they were killed. If you’re going to take all animals that are over two and a half years old and incinerate them on a scale like that it’s going to be just like nuclear waste—Who gets it? I don’t know.

What do you think it would take to wake up the American public and for them to realize that their hamburger could equal death for them in more ways than one?
It makes you stop and think: there are nine billion animals being killed that we are consuming every year for food in a nation of 300 million people—God, there’s got to be something wrong with that.

The thing that will absolutely tip this wagon over will be the first confirmed case of mad cow disease in the U.S. The government did come out when they found that the deer population in the western U.S. was contaminated with chronic wasting disease—the spongiform disease in deer and elk. I think that they are very uneasy and I don’t think it’s going to take very much before we see a number of bureaucrats and politicians jumping ship.

You say that meat eating in the U.S. has dropped substantially. Why do you think that is?
The consumption of red meat from the mid-70s until today has dropped from 94 pounds per person per year to 69 pounds, which is the last figure that I saw. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Number one is that the American people are becoming so much more obese and they are looking at the fact that red meat has a high concentration of fat. People are becoming more cholesterol-conscious. They see people having heart attacks. You can say what you want about American consumers, but they are not completely stupid. They realize there is a problem and I think they are thinking, “I’m not sure what the solution is but maybe cutting down on red meat is a good idea. I’ve got this itch, I don’t know where to scratch but this is a good place to start.”

Do you think Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD) is more common here than we think it is?
There are only two indicators that I know of. A study at the Pittsburgh Veteran’s hospital on demented patients found that five and a half percent of them had CJD; and a review that was done in New England found that 14 percent of demented patients had CJD. I think it is here. I think that the real culprit right now is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) because they have not required these brain diseases to be reportable. The fact is, we don’t know how many cases we have. As long as we fail to look, then we will fail to know.

Are there similarities between the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and CJD?
The symptoms for Alzheimer’s and CJD are very similar early on. When a national television program took a look at it, they made a statement that they believed that somewhere between 14 and 17 percent of all diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s could be CJD. The number of cases of Alzheimer’s today is estimated at somewhere around four percent of the population. I think we have to look at this and if I were running the CDC, I would make it a reportable disease. I would get statistical data so that we do not repeat a disaster like they have in England. I just read the other day that when the English government checked doctors’ operating instruments for tonsillectomies, they found that one out of every two were contaminated with CJD. I don’t have to go off the cliff to see that someone else who went off died. I think we need to experience some common sense.

Why do you think the meat industry is dragging its feet? At this point, aren’t the danger signs undeniable?
I think the problem is that the meat industry is undergoing the greatest stress they have had in recent history with the consumers backing away from red meat. I think they’re looking at the bottom line much more so than they are looking at national safety. Remember, their job is to be as profitable as possible for their stockholders. I believe the job of protecting the population lies in the hands of the politicians. They are the ones who are totally abrogating their responsibility in my view.

How do you see this changing?
In France almost 100 cases of mad cow disease have been reported this year [2000]. Right now international pressure is showing that when the government has stonewalled things in the past, it has been an absolute disaster. A most telling example was when the French government denied that AIDS was in the blood supply that was given to hemophiliacs; they knew blood was contaminated and continued to disperse it. When those bureaucrats ended up being prosecuted and held individually responsible, everyone—no matter where they were in government—had the understanding that if they lied to the people, there would be individual responsibility. I think the population is willing to understand honest mistakes, but the public is getting very wary of politicians and bureaucrats out and out lying to them.

How is CJD diagnosed in human beings?
The only thing that you can do right now is to diagnose CJD from symptoms. From the time that a person is infected until the symptoms show up can be anywhere from ten to 40 years. We do know that it can be transferred from the mother to the fetus in the womb. We do know that in Ireland, for example, a bull from England ended up in a herd of cows that did not have BSE; but they later came down with it. The only logical conclusion was that it was transferred through the sperm.

Some people have indicated that the newer MRI machines can actually see the holes in the brain in a live human in the late stages of CJD. What the hell good is that when you have something that is 100 percent fatal? If they can come up with a blood test that could diagnose somebody who is three to five years into the incubation stage, that would be somewhat helpful.

Look at the statistics for England: I think they’ve confirmed about 177,000 cases of mad cow disease in cattle and they now have 80 confirmed cases of CJD. Over the ten- to 40-year incubation period, that means a statistical possibility of somewhere between 5,000 and 2.5 million people per year that could come down with the disease. Would it be worthwhile if you could tell somebody that they have ten or 20 years left? It would sure change me if I knew that I had a 100 percent chance of dying with a disease. But until they come up with a test, what do you do, put your head in the sand and hope somebody else is in control when payment day comes?

This is so scary. What can people do?
The first thing to do, before a person runs around and yells that the sky is falling, is to pull your head out of the sand and educate yourself. There are some good books out there. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton wrote one called Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? [Common Courage Press, 1997]. There’s a book called Deadly Feasts: The ‘Prion’ Controversy and the Public’s Health by Richard Rhodes [Touchstone Books, 1998], which presents the thoughts of a scientist—Carleton Gajdusek—who won the Nobel Prize on this issue.

The second thing I would say is, protect yourself to the greatest extent that you can—remove animal products from your diet. I am a fourth generation farmer/feedlot operator and I go around and talk to people about not eating animal products. I think I saved my life by changing my diet. Ten of my friends used to come to my house and play cards in Montana. I’m the only vegetarian and the only one that hasn’t had heart disease, cancer or died. I’m the only one who’s lived to be 62 years old without those problems. I would say educate yourself, change your diet and learn how to live rather than worry about dying.

There are companies now who are still creating fertilizers with DDT for sale abroad—and we all know what DDT does to people and the soil—when it’s banned here in the U.S. Do you see a similar thing happening with beef?
Oh sure. Look at England at the height of the mad cow scare. There were entrepreneurs who were taking English beef, sending it to Eastern Europe then shipping it on to Africa as beef coming from Eastern Europe. If you look at the circle of poison, we have outlawed DDT, PCBs, dioxin, etc., but we are still producing and selling them to Third World nations that are producing food with those chemicals, and guess who they’re sending them back to. Look at the amount of imported food we consume. Only a miniscule amount of it is checked. Up to 40 percent of what is checked is found to be violating our standards, and we have no idea whether it ever gets turned back because most of it is already consumed by the time we run the samples on it.

This circle of poison is out there. It is being totally driven by multinational companies. I spent five years working on Capitol Hill trying to enact legislation ensuring that we would not send or sell chemicals to other countries. And I’ll tell you, when those multinational companies walked in with open checkbooks, the politicians just couldn’t fall over themselves fast enough to take their money.

As a result of the lawsuit, do you feel any restrictions to what you can say now?
No. But you know, it’s still going on. We still have 160 cattlemen that filed suit in state court and we moved it to federal court, and they’ve appealed that. It’s been over four years that we’ve been paying lawyers in Texas for doing what the fifth circuit court of appeals confirmed, which is that every word I said on the [Oprah Winfrey] show was true and the truth is not actionable. It’s an amazing thing to get sued for telling the truth.

To learn more about Howard Lyman visit


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.