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Mad Cow Disease

For those who need their memories refreshed, Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis is a degenerative brain disease that kills cows who have eaten the brains of other infected animals. The illness is transmitted by a "prion" -- a tiny protein key that unlocks a "slow virus" embedded in the cow's DNA. The creepy thing about the virus is the way it is transmitted -- vertically, from parent to child, and the disease is only expressed when the protein "key" is ingested. Once infected, the animal's brain is loaded with new prions -- microscopic triggers that can spread the disease to any future carnivore that harbors the vulnerable patch of DNA. Scrapie -- another slow virus -- has long been known to infect sheep. More recently, a slow virus called "Kuru" was found in humans among the cannibal tribes of New Guinea that traditionally eat human brains.

You have doubtless seen videos of infected cows spastically twitching and struggling to stand before finally dying. This scary disease prompted the destruction of 4.4 million British cows, and cost U.S. ranchers $11 billion from trade embargos. New unease among meat-eaters is building since an infected cow was recently found in California.

Beef slaughtering techniques are notoriously messy. Shooting a slug through the cow's brain drives fragments of the brain throughout the meat, potentially contaminating it with prions, and bits of spinal cord are often mixed with meat during the slaughter process. Because Prions aren't actually "alive" they can't be killed by cooking, however the risk can be sharply reduced by ending the deplorable practice of supplementing cattle feed with slaughterhouse scraps, and humans should still be safe as long as we weren't born with the DNA that is triggered by exposure.

Neverthless, some scientists wonder if a a recent uptick in "variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- a fatal degenerative brain illness that hits humans in their 20's -- may be triggered by Mad Cow prions. Tests are underway to see if a "slow virus" may be lurking within some humans, embedded within the cells of our bodies like time bombs, awaiting a chance to express the terrifying symptoms of the disease. But so far, zero humans on earth have ever been officially diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalitis in spite of the estimated trillions of hamburgers eaten worldwide. With those odds, only a "mad man" could be worried about Mad Cow Disease.

Please pass the pasta.

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