Mad Cow Scare Spurs Creation Of New Course
Engineering major William Philbrick was one of the first UConn students to sign up for a new one-credit course, "Cows, Mad and Otherwise," offered by the animal science department this semester.
In just two weeks, Philbrick and his 50 classmates have been introduced to the life cycle of dairy and beef cattle, and the different nutritional needs and feeding practices of Hereford (beef) and Holstein (dairy) cows.
They have also learned that efforts to keep the brain-wasting disease known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease, from U.S. shores ended in failure, when an infected Holstein was discovered in Washington State in December.
The furor that followed the discovery underscores the importance of studying how animals destined for America's dinner tables are fed. The detection of the first case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States has triggered a 10 percent drop in domestic cattle prices; prompted 50 countries to ban U.S. beef imports; and threatens to shatter global consumer confidence in the $53 billion U.S. cattle industry.
"It's really amazing to consider the extent to which this scare stretches across so many social fields," says Philbrick. He decided to take the course, which is open to all UConn students, "in order to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
"This is an issue the whole world has been dealing with that all of a sudden has become a problem for us too. This is happening right now and matters directly to the way we're living," Philbrick says.
"We need to know more about where our food comes from," says Professor Cameron Faustman, head of the animal science department, who designed the new course. He quotes scientist and philosopher Aldo Leopold's warning about the "danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery."
Just as there has been a surge in Islamic studies in colleges and universities across the country since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Faustman says the course on cows is also an attempt to respond to and illuminate current events.
"Mad Cow Disease is a fascinating problem that most people don't understand," he says, adding that he wants to engage students in the study of a topic many were already talking about. "We are attempting to examine a very current issue and trying to understand it."
The idea for the course came from a book Faustman read during winter break, The Pathological Protein, by Scientific American magazine writer/editor Philip Yam, which describes the human version of Mad Cow Disease.
Faustman discussed the concept with some colleagues and discovered that the collective feeling was, "How can we not put this course together?"
He went into high gear to develop the curriculum literally the Friday before classes started.
The course is taught by professors from animal science, pathobiology and veterinary science, and agricultural and resource economics. Additionally, a guest lecture will be presented by Yam, whose book is serving as the textbook for the class.
"We developed an interdisciplinary approach that will challenge students to understand both the scientific and practical sides of this issue," Faustman says.
The lectures encompass a broad range of scientific, economic, human health, and public policy issues that affect or are impacted by the BSE outbreak. "The course objective," he says, "is to teach students more about the food they buy and about the processes that bring it to the table."
Teaching about an event that is still unfolding is not without pitfalls. "This crisis is a very dynamic situation," Faustman says, "so some of the things I tell you today could change by next week."
The comprehensive approach is welcomed by Erin Sweeney, a biology major taking the course. "The course is a direct attempt to look at all sides of this problem," she says, "understand how it all fits together and has such a broad-based effect on our society."
Another student, Stefania Naiman, who is studying large animal medicine, says BSE is just one of many potentially perilous threats to the nation's food chain that consumers and society may have to face in the coming months and years and it is important to be well informed.
"I think one of the reasons for going to college is to become more aware of the world and what's going on around us," Naiman says. "It's hard for people without sufficient background to understand this issue, and the lack of information can quickly lead to hysteria or a dooms-day complex."
BSE, a fatal brain-destroying illness, was found in British cattle in the 1980's and has spread throughout Europe, as well as to Japan
and, recently, to Canada and the United States.
Some scientists theorize that the disease emerged out of a widespread practice of fortifying animal feed with protein supplements made from ground-up parts of other animals. They suspect the feed can transmit the disease if it includes nerve tissue, bone meal, or other material rendered from the carcasses of sick cows.
The United States banned such feed in 1997. Officials contend that the cow discovered in Washington State in December was infected by contaminated feed in Canada, where it was born.
Scientists believe humans can contract a form of Mad Cow Disease, known as "variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease" (vCJD), by eating contaminated beef products. Even though the connection is as yet unproven, the potential link of the disease with such a huge part of the American diet is cause for great concern.
Associate professor Richard French, a veterinary pathobiologist helping teach the course, says that since BSE was first diagnosed in 1986, there have been 142 documented cases of vCJD worldwide. He notes that the incubation period for vCJD is from 10 to 15 years, and during this period those infected are symptom-free. Because the disease is undetectable except by autopsy, there is no way of knowing how many people have already been infected, he says.
"I think the general public does not fully understand the source of contamination," he says. "It's tough because you don't want to be alarmist, but where a scientist sees a sense of urgency, the public may just not be aware. This is partly related to the fact that BSE has been reported as an animal disease. Unless there is a direct impact on human health, the issue is missed.
"The better educated the public is about the larger implications of this issue, the better off we are," French adds. "Now that it's here, it's not just academic, but practical as well."