As I discuss in my video Which Intestines for Food and Cosmetics?, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently reopened comments about its policy of allowing some intestines, but not others, into the U.S. food supply. When the first few cases of mad cow disease started popping up, the FDA’s gut reaction was to ban all guts from food and personal care products. Then, in 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA amended their draft rule to “permit the use of the entire small intestine for human food” if the last 80 uncoiled inches going to the colon is removed. Since then, however, studies have shown that infectious mad cow prions can be found throughout all parts of the intestine, from the stomach down to the cow’s colon, raising the question of whether all entrails should be removed once again from the food supply.
The North American Meat Association said no, wanting to keep cattle insides inside the food supply. Similarly, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA, now the Personal Care Products Council) protested the concern, arguing that banning downer and dead cattle, as well as their brains, skulls, eyes, spinal cords, intestines, and tonsils, could put our nation’s supply of cosmetics in jeopardy. There could be a tallow shortage for soap, for example. The FDA may not realize that cosmetics and personal care products are a quarter trillion-dollar industry worldwide.
In the end, the FDA “tentatively” concluded that intestines should continue to be allowed in the food and cosmetic supply because “[o]nly trace amounts of infectivity have been found” throughout the bowels of cattle. The agency had to come to that conclusion because, otherwise, the meat would have to be banned as well. Indeed, new research shows there’s mad cow infectivity in the animals’ muscles, too, and not just in the atypical cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), like the last mad cow found in California. We now know it’s in typical BSE as well: Low levels of infectious prions have also been found in the ribs, shoulders, tenderloins, sirloin tips, and round cuts of meat.
The latest estimates from Britain suggest 15,000 people are currently incubating the human form of mad cow disease, contracted through the consumption of infected meat. Fewer than 200 Brits have died so far of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but the incubation period for this invariably fatal neurodegenerative disease—that is, the time between eating the meat and one’s brain filling up with holes—can be decades. The fact that so many people are carrying it has important implications for the safety of blood transfusions, which is why many Americans who’ve lived in England are barred by the Red Cross from donating blood. Also at risk is the safety of handling surgical instruments that may have cut into someone who’s a carrier, as it is so difficult to sterilize anything once it’s been contaminated.
Given these factors, it may be prudent to err on the side of caution when regulating which intestines are allowed on and in our mouths, but it’s a balance. As one meat company pointed out, guts are not just used for lipstick—intestines are human food, “providing us with a precious source of protein which is essential for our human population.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the FDA has caved to industry pressures. See, for example:
As scary as rare infections like mad cow disease are, we are much more likely to be disabled or killed by more conventional foodborne pathogens such as bacteria. Check out:
Michael Greger, M.D.
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