One notable remnant of mad-cow hysteria is on its way out the door. A homespun activist claiming that a so-called “cluster” of 17 Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) cases was linked to beef served at a New Jersey racetrack recently sparked a media frenzy. From the New York Times to MSNBC, media outlets bought into one woman’s claim that Garden State beef is killing people. “It’s huge,” Janet Skarbek, the amateur sleuth who started this whole dust-up, told MSBNC’s Deborah Norville in prime time. Predictably, mad cow scaremongers like Center for Media and Democracy leader John Stauber seized on her story in an attempt to frighten Americans about our beef supply. But late last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control put those fears to rest.
A quick review: The technical name for mad cow disease is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Mad cow disease is also commonly called “variant” CJD (or vCJD). “Sporadic” CJD, on the other hand, is not connected with beef, and spontaneously occurs in about one person in every million.
On Friday the CDC weighed in on the New Jersey situation, writing in its Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report that “the deaths were not linked causally to a common source of infection … No evidence has indicated that any of the 17 reported deaths resulted from vCJD.” The CDC also reports that three of the 17 deaths were not CJD-related at all, and the cause of another three remains undetermined. Regardless, the eleven confirmed CJD deaths were “sporadic,” not meat-related. Read that again. The New Jersey deaths were not caused by mad cow disease.
In what ought to be the final word on this non-story, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSS) has ruled that the remaining 11 spontaneous CJD deaths aren’t abnormal at all. It seems Skarbek forgot to tell the Times and the broadcast media that the deaths occurred over a nine year period, making them (according to NJDHSS) “within the estimated range [one in a million].” And whatever Skarbek’s motive for raising unjustified red flags, NJDHSS adds that her story “does not support the existence of an outbreak of CJD among attendees at the GSRT [Garden State Race Track] … Laboratory data provide scientific evidence against a theory that any of these illnesses were related to each other or to BSE.”