You Are What You Meat

The little tag on a tray of Smart Chicken brand breasts at the Byerly’s
meat counter said, “One hundred percent vegetarian-fed chicken.” Does
this mean the Bush administration has finally found a use for all those
pesky, liberal vegetarians? Or does it mean I might somehow obtain by
proxy some vegetarian virtue from the animal that will sustain my
carnivorous vice?

Fortunately, the people at Smart Chicken are eager to say what value is
added to poultry when animal products are subtracted from their diets.
Yes, there is much waxing sentimental about “land stewardship” and
“birds raised free range with access to fresh air and sunlight.” But
vegetarian feed for the animals is mostly promoted as part of the
basket of consumer health benefits, along with antibiotic- and
hormone-free organic production methods. These claims include lower
rates of salmonella and camphelobacter contamination in addition to
preservation of “natural flavors.”

And, of course, there’s the issue of those little brain-eating proteins
called prions.The most notorious prion is the one that causes bovine
spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease. BSE was introduced to the
human food chain via cows that had been raised on feed enriched with
sheep brains infected with a prion. British cattle acquired BSE,
passing it along to about two hundred beef consumers in the form of
variant Cruetz-feld-Jakob disease.

Statistically, prions are a very rare encounter, not much more
dangerous to the general public than standing between a TV camera and
Michael Osterholm. But prion expert Will Houston admits they “stimulate
the imagination.” Houston also pointed out that “risk” is tricky to
assess; likelihood of infection can be very low, while outcome if
infected can be catastrophic. Houston went to Great Britain to
investigate BSE in 1991 for the U.S. Agriculture Department and is now
the director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the
University of Minnesota. He generously supplied a number of prion facts
that justify their unusual grip on our attention. “They aren’t sexy,”
he confessed when asked what they look like. “They look kind of like a
twist tie.” But they can’t be destroyed with cooking the way most
pathogens can. One reason is that they are not alive in the first
place; they are just protein. They can also withstand temperatures of
up to one thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, the real attention-getter is what the prions actually do to
their unwilling host. They don’t make copies of themselves, like
viruses, Houston explained. “A prion is more like a domino effect. We
all have normal prion proteins in our brains. When that abnormal-shaped
protein encounters a normal-shaped protein, it converts it. The body
can’t recycle the abnormal-shaped proteins and they accumulate into
amyloid plaques.” The plaques then make holes in the brain. Centers for
Disease Control descriptions of symptoms include “seizure, depression,
appetite loss, ataxia, aphasia, combative behavior, memory loss, and
coma.” Prion disease is untreatable and fatal.

Producers of vegetarian-raised meats do not currently promote claims of
prion safety with their products. But Mark Haskins, founder and chief
executive of MBA/Smart Chicken, believes that especially in the case of
poultry products, demand is partly driven by BSE fears. “I believe the
consumer has become very discerning in the marketplace,” Haskins told
me. “They know that the BSE challenge has come from animal proteins.”
This sentiment was echoed by Ed, a meat-counter staffer working at the
Wedge Co-op when I stopped by. “We have a very well-educated
clientele,” he said, and other staff confirmed that “mad cow” is much
on the minds of meat shoppers there.

But prions appear to be getting educated, too. Deer and elk now appear
to exchange the chronic wasting disease prion without the intermediary
step of eating each other, leading to concerns about potential contact
with farm animals. “If such transmissions were to occur,” states a 2004
CDC study, “passage of the agent through a secondary host could alter
its infectious properties, increasing its potential for becoming more
pathogenic to humans.” Hopefully, smart, free-range chickens will read
the memo: Don’t hang around the elk.—Joe Pastoor