Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Red Meat

Mad Cow Disease may not be as bad as you think.

I feel confident that no one would relish the idea of a damaged brain; but I expect I harbor even more protective feelings toward my mind than most people. My livelihood is based on the capabilities and agilities of my brain. I think it is natural to want to protect that which you rely upon for your living. I imagine that surgeons must be similarly protective about their fine-motor skills and the health of their hands. I never ride my bike or go skiing without a helmet, I always wear a seatbelt, I sleep well and eat well – all in service to my grey-matter. Even the slightest loss of mental acuity leaves me worried that my career could be in jeopardy.

When I first heard of Mad Cow Disease it terrified me, it was my worst fear materialized. Here was a disease that would riddle my brain full of holes, progressively impairing my ability to think and reason. I wouldn’t know the cause of the fog that slowly enfolded me and would fight in futility hoping to somehow regain the sharpness that I had once enjoyed. Eventually it would overcome me, a complete loss of mental function leading to coma and death. This mental picture was made worse by my realization that the disease wasn’t caused by a living virus or bacteria, but rather a prion – a complex protein that is able to reproduce without the need for DNA or any other structure that we normally associate with organisms. This fact makes the disease impersonal, unlikely to be treatable at any point in the future, and hopelessly irreversible. I immediately stopped eating cow meat; I stopped eating burgers, steaks, sausage, beef chili, or anything else that contained cow parts. When I learned that gelatin was made of cow bones and skin I tried to avoid that too, but without much success – gelatin is in almost everything! I felt I was doing well to reduce my exposure and had limited my risk to a reasonable degree, whenever I heard about an infected cow in the US or Canada I felt justified in the steps I was taking. As far as I could tell Mad Cow Disease was highly contagious, and any exposure to the prions could result in my infection.

I suppose that giving up cow had put me on the moral high-ground, as described in a commentary I read in Newsweek. The article portrays the struggles of a Rabbi coming to terms with the implications of his carnivorous ways. If you value life, how can you wish death upon an animal in order to sustain yourself?

“Once animals talked just like people. Once every living creature ate only grass and nuts and a few berries when they could find them. No living thing ever thought about killing another living thing to eat it, until the day Noah wanted a hamburger.

One night Noah dreamed of a hamburger, and when he woke up, he wanted one really badly. But Noah wasn't exactly sure how to get a hamburger, so he asked his friend the cow, “I dreamed about a hamburger last night. Do you know where I can get one?”

The cow gave Noah a puzzled look and asked, “What's a hamburger?”

“I don't know exactly,” Noah replied. “All I know is that in my dream the hamburger was something delicious between two buns with lettuce, onions, pickles and some special sauce.”

“Have some more grass and forget about it,” said the cow.

Noah asked the snake, who was the smartest of all the animals, “What's a hamburger and how can I get one?”

The snake whispered in Noah's ear, “To get one you have to make one.”

“I don't know how to make one.” Noah sputtered.

The snake laughed, pointed at the cow who was peacefully munching some grass, and said to Noah, “To make a hamburger, you have to kill that cow, chop up her meat, and fry it in a pan--or flame broil it!”

Noah's mouth opened wide, “But...but...the cow is my friend! She is a living thing just like me! I can't kill her, chop up her meat and fry it in a pan! And what is flame broiling anyway?”

By now the snake was rolling around on the ground laughing, “Kid, if you want a hamburger, that's what you gotta do.”

Well...Noah really wanted a hamburger and so that's what he really did! The first hamburger tasted delicious. But when Noah came again to the fields everything was different. When he walked towards the birds, they flew away. When Noah went over to say hello to the cows and the sheep and the buffalo, they ran away from him. Even the fish swam away when they heard Noah coming.

Noah could not understand what had happened to his friends the animals, and he could not find one single animal that would explain it to him. In fact, since the day Noah ate the first hamburger, no animal has ever talked to a person. They are still too angry.

I’ve since learned that Mad Cow Disease may not be as bad as I had thought. It is likely that most people are resistant to the prions that cause the disease. This theory is borne out by the fact that exposure to infected meat has numbered in the millions yet the death toll in Europe is less than 200. Prion-based diseases, whether Mad Cow or some other variant, all have the same root cause – Cannibalism. Cows get Mad Cow by eating feed that contains cow brains and other parts. People, in the distant (and not so distant) past, have gotten brain wasting diseases by eating people brains and other parts. According to ScienceDaily, cannibalism over the eons produced evolutionary pressure that has resulted in human resistance to prions. If your ancestors practiced cannibalism then you are likely to have a resistance. The more cannibalism, the more resistance!

I choose to believe that my ancestors must have been highly cannibalistic, therefore I must have a very high resistance to Mad Cow Disease. So high, that I can eat cows at will and indulge in steaks, burgers and sausage to my heart’s delight. I’ve learned to stop worrying and once again love red meat.

Lessons learned:

  • Mad Cow Disease is bad
  • Cannibalism protects from Mad Cow Disease
  • Most of our ancestors were happily eating each other before there were laws stating otherwise
  • Cannibalistic ancestors are good!

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