Vegan Health ArticlesParatuberculosis and Crohn's Disease: Got Milk? US Inaction
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From Michael Greger, MD
Updated January 2001

The USDA has been accused of continuing to keep its head in the sand. Industry specialists blame the federal government for "grossly underfunding" research, with less than one percent of its animal disease grant budget allocated to Johne's.[61] As Alan Kennedy, a co-founder of PARA and himself a sufferer of Crohn's disease remarked, "yet another case of CJD -- Conflicting Job Description." The USDA is mandated to regulate animal industries and food safety, but it is also responsible for promoting these same agricultural products.[201]

The first US case of Johne's was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1908.[182] Almost a century later there is still no mandated control program,[138] even though as far back as 1922 scientists published warnings of the danger posed by the disease and outlined effective methods of controlling and eradicating it. Efforts to control and eradicate Johne's disease have been grossly inadequate.[61] "In the 75 years following the release of that publication, there's very little that any state has done to try to control the disease," says Collins, the University of Wisconsin veterinary researcher. Meanwhile, as predicted in 1922, the disease has continued to spread silently and surely. According to the USDA's figures, there are now three quarters of a million cattle infected with paraTB in the United States.[130]

The reason that Johne's has spread to such a degree is because there have been no direct constraints on the transport of infected animals.[142] Almost without exception, paratuberculosis is introduced into a herd through the addition of an asymptomatic, infected carrier animal. Almost every infected herd can trace the infection to the purchase of an infected cow[183] that appeared healthy when offered for sale.[194] Disturbingly, the USDA found that dairy farmers with infected herds were no less likely to sell replacement cows to other farms than owners of noninfected herds.[190]

Regulatory vets know and accept this fact, acknowledging that movement restrictions on infected animals must exist for an effective control program. However, as described in the Veterinary Clinics of North America, "if the voluntary program imposes movement restrictions, it could quickly become a regulatory program and not have widespread support and participation from the livestock industry."[169] In fact, the Code of Federal Regulations (part 80) was recently changed to remove restrictions on the interstate movement of Johne's disease positive animals.[127] The change was made because of pressure from the livestock industry.[169]

Though not putting its money where its mouth is, the USDA insists that the agency is doing everything it can with regard to Johne's disease.[61] The USDA, for example, cites the formation of the National Johne's Working Group (NJWG) in 1994. However, the executive committee of the group is composed of three people: one is John Adams of the National Milk Producers Federation and another is Gary Weber, a director of the National Cattleman's Beef Association.[201]

For those that remember the Oprah Winfrey mad cow fiasco, Weber was the cattleman defending cow cannibalism. "Now keep in mind," he said on that show, "before you -- you view the ruminant animal, the cow, as simply a vegetarian -- remember that they drink milk." Years earlier, in response to activists' requests that farmers discontinue the practice of feeding rendered animal protein to animals raised for slaughter, he told industry publication Food Chemical News that the cattle industry could indeed find economically feasible alternatives to such a practice, but that the cattlemen's association did not want to "set a precedent of being ruled by activists."[137]

Not surprisingly, the NJWG has officially come out against making Johne's a reportable disease, advocating that all attempts at control be voluntary.[169] In a moment of rare candor, one NJWG member explained why: "If the farmers have to report positive cows, then it will be like the sheep scrapie [mad sheep disease] program. Instead of reporting the disease, the farmers will 'shoot, shovel and shut up.'"[119]

A year earlier, a national paratuberculosis certification program had been started in order to identify low risk herds, but only 1% of dairy operations reported participating in the program, citing associated costs.[190] Less than 15% of the dairy producers appear to test for Johne's.[106] In 1997, the NJWG set up a similar program designed to be more affordable,15 but again chose to keep it strictly optional, relying on the "livestock industry in each state to sell its economic advantage to its members."[169] As a concession to the industry, there is still no federally mandated Johne's disease control program.[169] Some states have Johne's control programs, but without exception they are noncompulsory.[123] Just as government deregulation of industry may have led to the mad cow disaster in Europe, the lack of industry accountability may also play a pivotal role in the human consequences of the paratuberculosis epidemic.[114]

The United States is being left behind in the worldwide race to eliminate paraTB.[118] The Netherlands, one of Europe's largest dairy exporters, has pledged to eradicate paratuberculosis by the end of this year by instigating a compulsory eradication program.[189] "To minimize the risk of human exposure to paratuberculosis" is one of the explicit reasons given for the Dutch program.[47] Sweden seems to be closest to winning the battle, probably because it was the first country whose control efforts were nonvoluntary.[141] Australia is currently also certifying herds with a view to eradication.[72] Although there are currently no restrictions on international trade as a result of the disease,[106] that may well change and potentially threaten America's $700 million dairy product export industry.[189]

Mike Collins began his messages to both the Johne's Disease Committee and the general session of the USAHA with the same words: "Don't shoot the messenger."[73] Rather than participating in serious dialogue around the issue, the dairy industry has been accused of spending its energies slinging mud at researchers in the field,61 giving lip service, and vainly hoping it just all blows away.[24] Christine Rossiter, senior extension veterinarian with the Cornell University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told the Wisconsin Agriculturist that those who decide to address the issue are put at risk and there's "no value placed by the industry on a person who wants to do something about Johne's. Nobody wants to take it on."[61]

At an international colloquium on paratuberculosis, Chiodini expressed his view that the current focus of the American dairy industry "could put the industry in the same light as the tobacco industry, being accused of a cover-up and faced with all sorts of liabilities."[24] Paul Strandberg, Assistant Attorney General of the State of Minnesota warned the Johne's Disease Committee that if they chose to be less than forthright about the possible link between milk and beef and Crohn's Disease, they could wind up on 60 Minutes in the middle of a media circus.[119]

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