Circle of Poison: Mad
Cow Disease in Europe and What Could be in Store for the U.S.
The Satya Interview
with Howard Lyman
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
animalsincluding other cows. As a result of his and Winfreys
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 Wont 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
yearssaying that our meat is safe, that theres nothing
to worry about. Now all of a sudden governments are finding out that
may have put the whole country at risk.
Why isnt that sense of alarm happening here in the U.S.?
I think that were looking at a progression. We saw BSE show
up first in England and everybody denied it in Europe. Now were
seeing it happen in France, though at first they denied it. They denied
it was happening in Germany and now its happening there. Its
just a matter of time. We should have learned from this and I dont
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 outand remember hes under a lot of pressure
because they look at that industry as a national treasureand,
all of a sudden, Germans are saying, Oh my God, our meat is contaminated.
What caused it? Its 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 dont we go back to the root cause? Why dont
we get rid of it? Why dont we go back to what we knew was safe
for hundreds of years?
I didnt hear anything about the Chancellors remarks
I wouldnt have heard about it if it were not for the fact
that Ive 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.
Its not about being able to kill the animal, put a drop of dye
on it and look at it and say, Yup, this ones infected. That
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. Thats 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
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 wont 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 thats 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. Thats
what were 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 well
leave it in or well throw it out? If its thrown out,
what are we going to do with it? You cant grind it up; you cant
feed it back to another animal. If you incinerate it the ash is still
infectious. Weve got some major, major problems here. It will
be better if we can tell which ones 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
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 its still infectious and they dont 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 youre going to take all
animals that are over two and a half years old and incinerate them on
a scale like that its going to be just like nuclear wasteWho
gets it? I dont 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 peopleGod, theres got to be something wrong with
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 diseasethe spongiform disease
in deer and elk. I think that they are very uneasy and I dont
think its 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
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,
they are not completely stupid. They realize there is a problem and
I think they are thinking, Im not sure what the solution
is but maybe cutting down on red meat is a good idea. Ive got
this itch, I dont know where to scratch but this is a good place
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
Veterans 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 dont 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 Alzheimers
disease and CJD?
The symptoms for Alzheimers 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 Alzheimers could be CJD. The number
of cases of Alzheimers 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 dont
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, arent 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
away from red meat. I think theyre 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
How do you see this changing?
In France almost 100 cases of mad cow disease have been reported
this year . Right now international pressure is showing that
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,
everyoneno matter where they were in governmenthad the
understanding that if they lied to the people, there would be individual
I think the population is willing to understand honest mistakes, but
the public is getting very wary of politicians and bureaucrats out
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
Look at the statistics for England: I think theyve confirmed
about 177,000 cases of mad cow disease in cattle and they now have
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
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
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
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]. Theres a book called Deadly
Feasts: The Prion Controversy and the Publics Health by
Richard Rhodes [Touchstone Books, 1998], which presents the thoughts
of a scientistCarleton Gajdusekwho won the Nobel Prize
on this issue.
The second thing I would say is, protect yourself to the greatest extent
that you canremove 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. Im the only vegetarian and the only one that hasnt
had heart disease, cancer or died. Im the only one whos
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
There are companies now who are still creating fertilizers with
DDT for sale abroadand we all know what DDT does to people and the
soilwhen its 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 theyre
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
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 Ill tell you, when those multinational companies
walked in with open checkbooks, the politicians just couldnt
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, its still going on. We still have 160 cattlemen
that filed suit in state court and we moved it to federal court, and
theyve appealed that. Its been over four years that weve
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. Its an
amazing thing to get sued for telling the truth.
To learn more about Howard Lyman visit www.madcowboy.com.