Washington, DC’s community of animal scientists and agriculture regulators is buzzing about something Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) president Wayne Pacelle told Congress last week, and the discussion isn’t helping HSUS’s credibility. During his testimony in a contentious hearing on animal welfare, Pacelle made the startling statement that pigs can get mad cow disease. Most observers understand that part of HSUS’s vegetarian-only dietary agenda involves scaring people away from bacon and barbecue. And so far, the scientific evidence for claims of “mad pigs” doesn’t look good.
In his testimony, Pacelle wrote that “scientific studies have pointed to the possibility that pigs, whose diet can include ground-up cattle remains, may harbor a porcine [pig-related] form of mad cow disease.” The pork industry fired back, saying that “Pacelle either misled Congress, or he’s ignorant of the facts.”
Pacelle returned serve two days ago with a scathing Internet article defending his original statement. “British government researchers,” he wrote, “proved that pigs are indeed susceptible to infection with [mad cow disease] in research published in 1990 in The Veterinary Record, the official scientific journal of the British Veterinary Association.” A footnote points to the seventeen-year-old study by UK scientists Michael Dawson, Gerald Wells, and others.
Enter Richard Lobb, the communications director at the National Chicken Council. It’s not necessarily his job to promote pork, but he knows a red herring when he sees one. Yesterday, on an Internet mailing list hosted by a U.S. Department of Agriculture manager, Lobb delivered a death blow to Pacelle’s mad-pig hypothesis:

A minute’s research on Google Scholar will reveal a published study by Wells, et al. — the very researcher cited by Pacelle — concluding that BSE [mad cow disease] is not transmitted to pigs, either. This study, “Studies of the transmissibility of the agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy to pigs,” was published in the Journal of General Virology in 2003.

Guess what? Lobb is right. In 2003, thirteen years after they first speculated that mad cow disease might affect pigs, Drs. Wells, Dawson, and seven other scientists updated their findings. (If Pacelle had updated his, he might not have misled Congress.) Instead of injecting diseased materials into the pigs’ brains — not exactly a real-world test — they gave the animals infected feed similar to what can transmit the disease from one cow to another.
Wells and his team found “no evidence of transmission” of mad cow disease to pigs after they were exposed to massive doses of infected material in their food. (Note to HSUS: Click here to download the full study.) This result, the researchers added, probably explains “why repeated primary exposures of commercial pigs to BSE, together with the considerable potential for pig-to-pig recycling of infection (until April 1996), has not resulted in natural cases [of mad cow-like diseases] in pigs.”
As we’ve seen many times before, phony claims about science tend to be outed by scientists. And in some cases, a minute’s research on the Internet may be enough to keep even the most opportunistic animal-rights activists honest. Just maybe.