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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Hawai'i has grass-fed solution to mad cow

As the first suspected U.S. case of mad cow disease emerges in Washington state, Hawai'i would be smart to seize this opportunity to promote our grass-fed beef.

This isn't a matter of capitalizing on another's misfortune. Rather it is a reminder that Hawai'i can develop a substantial niche reputation for natural, high-quality, organic products including beef.

And while we sympathize with the $100 billion-plus U.S. livestock industry as it struggles to ensure the safety of U.S. beef, this latest threat is cause for concern about the diet of the livestock we eat.

The brain-wasting disease known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) emerged in Britain in the mid-'80s. Experts believe cattle got the disease from feed made from the remains of animals infected with the neurodegenerative disease, "scrapie."

The outbreak, which the British government was slow to reveal in full, has resulted in the slaughter of millions of cattle. More than 100 Europeans have died from the related variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Though the name, "mad cow disease," sounds like a joke, the human variant is no laughing matter.

Early symptoms include anxiety and depression. As it progresses, victims suffer dementia, paralysis and eventually death.

The U.S. government has precautions in place to prevent cattle with mad cow disease from entering the food supply, including immediate quarantine on any affected farm and testing of cows at slaughter.

And the FDA has banned animal feed that contains the brain and spinal tissue of livestock.

But one way or another, BSE has infiltrated North America. One case emerged in Canada last May, and now a single Holstein on a farm near Yakima has tested positive for the disease.

News of the U.S. case has already spurred Japan to temporarily ban imports of U.S. beef, and South Korea says it will follow suit if the Washington case is confirmed.

For our safety, the government must keep the public informed of the results of its investigation into the origins of the U.S. mad cow disease case and the scope of the threat.

That didn't happen in Britain. A report later found the government misled the public about the threat of mad cow disease spreading from cattle to humans.

We live in an age where mainstream agricultural practices include pumping livestock with antibiotics and growth hormones. Perhaps it's time to cultivate more organic alternatives. If anything, mad cow disease ought to serve as a harsh reminder that we are what we eat.