Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague

by Richard Rhodes

Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph. D.

It is increasingly clear that vegetarianism is not only an important personal choice today but also a societal imperative because of the very high economic and ecological costs related to the production and consumption of animal products. Yet, along with some recent shifts toward plant-based diets, McDonald's and other fast food hamburger chains continue to rapidly expand and millions of recently affluent people in China, India, Japan, and other countries have been shifting from traditional diets to animal-centered diets.

In this context, Richard Rhodes carefully-researched and well-written book can have a major impact on future eating habits. For it traces the evolution of a terrifying new disease that has already created a panic in England and has the potential to have global implications.

Because of the complexity of the scientific issues involved, the book is not always easy to read. One has to wrestle with many technical terms such as vCJD, BSE, prions, APP. amyloid plaques, and PrP. (There is a helpful six page glossary.) Fortunately, the author has the background and abilities to keep the book from bogging down in technical details - he is the author of 15 books, including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction and the National Book Award, and The Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, one of three finalists for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in History. Because of his skills, the book reads like a scientific detective novel in which he shows the human side of scientific efforts to discover the mysteries behind a new group of bizarre, deadly brain diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSEs) that kill all of the animals and humans that they infect.

The TSEs kill by damaging the brain in both animals and humans. Victims lose control of their muscles, stagger and stumble, lose the ability to walk, have seizures, go mute, become demented, lose their ability to swallow, and generally die of starvation or pneumonia within a year. The most well known TSE is bovine springiform encephalopathy, BSE, which has been commonly called "mad cow disease" because of the confused behavior described above. Autopsies of victims show that their brains are riddled with microscopic sponge-like holes (hence "spongiform encephalopathy). This disease was first diagnosed in England in 1986 and has killed over 170,000 British cattle by 1996. Scientists believe that the disease is related to the modern intensive livestock agriculture practice of feeding processed parts of sheep and cows to cattle, a practice that forces naturally vegetarian cows to have a carnivorous and even cannibalistic diet.

The factor that makes this book very timely and relevant is that, after years of adamantly denying any connection existed between any human illness and Mad Cow Disease, on March 20, 1996, a government committee of British scientists announced that the consumption of BSE-infected meat was the "most likely" cause of an outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakob (pronounced KROYTZ-felt YAHK-ohb) Disease (CJD), the fatal human equivalent of BSE, after ten relatively young British citizens contracted CJD. This very embarrassing about face by the government produced world-war scale headlines, stunned and angered the British people, and sent shockwaves through Europe and around the world. Confidence in the British government sagged and this was no doubt a contributing factor to the unprecedented landslide recently won by the British Labor Party. The European Union (EU) voted to ban British beef from their countries. In England, beef sales plummeted, supermarkets cut their prices for beef in half, and even McDonald's refused to use British beef.

Starting with a cannibal feast in New Guinea in 1950 that killed many who partook due to a human form of TSE known as kuru, Rhodes shows the spread of TSEs throughout the world, infecting and killing laboratory animals, herds of sheep, cows, mink, deer, and elk, patients in eye surgery, and finally, and most ominously children in England and on the European Continent. He argues that Americans who eat meat are definitely at risk; this is confirmed by a U. S. Food and Drug Administration announcement in early 1997 of drastic measures to prevent an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States.

The author is not a vegetarian; he states: "There's nothing inherently wrong with industrializing agriculture - with raising chickens, pigs, and other food animals under controlled conditions - if such conditions are carefully arranged to limit disease and protect the public health." This has the benefit of strengthening the warnings in the book; he certainly can't be accused of being a radical vegetarian who had a preconceived agenda. On the other hand, he fails to see the irony of the tremendous concern about a disease that so far has only affected a relatively small number of people while ignoring the fact that millions are stricken annually by heart disease, cancer, and many other degenerative diseases.

The book provides another valuable example of how the mistreatment of animals leads to negative effects for people. A good part of the book discusses experiments on animals in efforts to seek the causes of TSEs and to study the possible transmission of the disease from one animal species to another. One might be tempted to see great value in these experiments until remembering that the problem would never have occurred if people were not eating animals and that the best way to reduce the possibility of being stricken by CJD and many other diseases is to shift to an animal-free diet.

Rhodes discusses the tireless efforts of many brilliant scientists, including Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek (pronounced GUY-dew-sheck) who won a Nobel Prize in Medicine, in attempting to solve the mysteries of TSEs. But one wishes that at least one of them would shift away from their focus on animal experiments to declare that the entire system of eating and otherwise exploiting animals is insane and at the root of the problems that they were investigating. Unfortunately, there are no prizes for that kind of analysis.

Rhodes also indicates how the livestock industry puts profits ahead of the well being of people and, of course, animals. For example, in 1994 the U. S. Department of Agriculture proposed banning sheep offal (guts, heads, tails. blood, and other "off-fall" of slaughtering and butchering) from animal feed, but U. S. agribusiness contested the ban on the grounds that it would be too costly and it was never imposed. He also shows how governments often place the success of the livestock industry and its own political future ahead of the health of its citizens. In the early stages the British government considered BSE more from a public relations point of view than a health point of view.

Beyond direct contamination of the human food supply, the author also explores another potential area of human risk, the new biotechnology of xenotransplantation: transplanting organs and tissues of specially bred animals into humans. Pigs are generally the animals used and they have been shown to be susceptible to TSE infection. And, as studies discussed in the book illustrate, TSEs raise major issues of risk whenever the species barrier is breached.

Deadly Feasts provides one additional reason, and a very frightening one, for a switch to a vegetarian diet. It is hoped that many people will read the book and that it will convince them to switch to the plant-based diets that are essential for the health of individuals and our precious, but imperiled, planet.


This review originally appeared in Animals' Agenda magazine (September, 1997) and is included here with their permission.

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