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Amending the US beef business

Greater consumer protections could result from heightened scrutiny of industry practices.

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"There are two things you don't want to see being made," German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck reputedly said. "Sausage and legislation." The mad-cow episode in the United States illustrates that quip as no other story in recent memory.

Americans today are learning far more than they ever wanted to know about the process of turning cows into thousands of products that even a hard-core vegan would have trouble avoiding - cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fire-extinguisher foam, lubricants, the glue that holds plywood together. Not to mention the steaks, roasts, hamburger, and other meat items that human carnivores regularly devour.

The process is necessarily violent and mechanical, involving slicing, grinding, and high-pressure blasting and compression. It's much safer than it was years ago - both for slaughterhouse and meat- processing workers, as well as for consumers. But it has also run the risk of mixing the potentially disease-causing parts of the cow (brain, spinal cord, and parts of the intestine) into the muscle meat and other food products - including sausage - that many Americans eat every day. Meat from the infected Holstein was mixed in with 20,000 pounds from other cows before being shipped to market.

Some doctors now suspect that people diagnosed with Alzheimer's may in fact have the human version of the neurological disease, which incubates years before appearing in the form of mental and physical degeneration. No one knows for sure if there is any possible link to animals with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (the scientific name for mad-cow disease), however. That's because until now the inspection system for cattle headed for the slaughterhouse has been relatively minimal.

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