Mad Cow Disease and Cosmetics

As I discuss in my video Which Intestines for Food and Cosmetics?, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently reopened comments about its policy of allowing some intestines, but not others, into the U.S. food supply. When the first few cases of mad cow disease started popping up, the FDA’s gut reaction was to ban all guts from food and personal care products. Then, in 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA amended their draft rule to “permit the use of the entire small intestine for human food” if the last 80 uncoiled inches going to the colon is removed. Since then, however, studies have shown that infectious mad cow prions can be found throughout all parts of the intestine, from the stomach down to the cow’s colon, raising the question of whether all entrails should be removed once again from the food supply.

The North American Meat Association said no, wanting to keep cattle insides inside the food supply. Similarly, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA, now the Personal Care Products Council) protested the concern, arguing that banning downer and dead cattle, as well as their brains, skulls, eyes, spinal cords, intestines, and tonsils, could put our nation’s supply of cosmetics in jeopardy. There could be a tallow shortage for soap, for example. The FDA may not realize that cosmetics and personal care products are a quarter trillion-dollar industry worldwide.

In the end, the FDA “tentatively” concluded that intestines should continue to be allowed in the food and cosmetic supply because “[o]nly trace amounts of infectivity have been found” throughout the bowels of cattle. The agency had to come to that conclusion because, otherwise, the meat would have to be banned as well. Indeed, new research shows there’s mad cow infectivity in the animals’ muscles, too, and not just in the atypical cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), like the last mad cow found in California. We now know it’s in typical BSE as well: Low levels of infectious prions have also been found in the ribs, shoulders, tenderloins, sirloin tips, and round cuts of meat.

The latest estimates from Britain suggest 15,000 people are currently incubating the human form of mad cow disease, contracted through the consumption of infected meat. Fewer than 200 Brits have died so far of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but the incubation period for this invariably fatal neurodegenerative disease—that is, the time between eating the meat and one’s brain filling up with holes—can be decades. The fact that so many people are carrying it has important implications for the safety of blood transfusions, which is why many Americans who’ve lived in England are barred by the Red Cross from donating blood. Also at risk is the safety of handling surgical instruments that may have cut into someone who’s a carrier, as it is so difficult to sterilize anything once it’s been contaminated.

Given these factors, it may be prudent to err on the side of caution when regulating which intestines are allowed on and in our mouths, but it’s a balance. As one meat company pointed out, guts are not just used for lipstick—intestines are human food, “providing us with a precious source of protein which is essential for our human population.”


Unfortunately, this is not the first time the FDA has caved to industry pressures. See, for example:

As scary as rare infections like mad cow disease are, we are much more likely to be disabled or killed by more conventional foodborne pathogens such as bacteria. Check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What’s the Best Ferritin Level to Lower Cancer Risk?

If cancer is indeed a so-called ferrotoxic disease, a consequence, in part, of iron toxicity, that would explain not only the dramatic drop in cancer rates after blood donations, but also why people with higher levels of iron in their blood have an increased risk of dying from cancer, why women who bleed into their ovaries are at high risk for ovarian cancer, and why those suffering from hemochromatosis (an iron overload disease) have up to 200 times the risk of cancer. There has even been a call to go back and look at some of the chemotherapy trials that kept taking blood from the chemo group to check for side effects. Perhaps just the iron removal from the blood draws accounted for some of the apparent chemo benefits.

Iron may be a double-edged sword, as I explore in my video Donating Blood to Prevent Cancer?. Iron deficiency causes anemia, whereas excessive iron may increase cancer risk, presumably by acting as a pro-oxidant and generating free radicals. Iron-deficiency anemia is a serious problem in the developing world. “In meat-eating countries, however, iron excess may be more of a problem than iron deficiency…Body iron stores accumulate insidiously with ageing due to the fact that intake exceeds loss,” and our body has no good way of getting rid of excess iron.

Ferritin is a blood test measure of our backup iron stores. As you can see at 1:31 in my video, the normal range is about 12 to 200 ng/mL—but just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s ideal. In the blood donor study discussed earlier, those who developed cancer had ferritin levels around 127.1 ng/mL. The average for men may be over a hundred.

This suggests that so-called normal, “ambient levels of iron stores may be noxious and constitute a ‘public’ problem that affects large segments of the population.” As such, “[t]here may be a need to redefine the normal range…based on associated disease risk” rather than following a bell curve. “Thus, iron deficiency may exist when ferritin levels decline to less than about 12 ng/mL, whereas ferrotoxic disease may occur with levels greater than about 50 ng/mL.”

Harvard recently looked at blood donations and colorectal cancer, and found no connection, but the range of ferritin levels the researchers looking at was roughly 100 to less than 200 ng/mL, as you can see at 2:28 in my video. What’s more, those were from individuals who reported giving blood 30 or more times. So, perhaps instead of draining our blood to reduce excess iron stores, why not prevent the iron overload in the first place? If we measure the iron stores of men who stay away from heme iron and, instead, get all of their iron from plants, their iron levels are right around where the cancer-free donor group came in, as you can see at 2:54 in my video. This may help explain why those eating plant-based diets tend to have less cancer and other diseases associated with iron overload. Indeed, they may also have less pre-diabetes, as well as have less diabetes.


For more on the blood donor study I discussed, see Donating Blood to Prevent Heart Disease?.

For more on diet and iron levels, see The Safety of Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron and Risk Associated with Iron Supplements.

Interested in other examples of normal lab values not being necessarily ideal? Check out:

Even though a plant-based diet may be preferable for personal disease risk, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all give blood. Join me in supporting the Red Cross.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Lowering Your Cancer Risk by Donating Blood

Back in the early 1980s, a pathologist in Florida suggested that the reason premenopausal women are protected from heart disease is that they have lower stores of iron in their body. Since oxidized cholesterol is “important in atherosclerosis, and oxidation is catalyzed by iron,” might the lower iron stores of menstruating women reduce their risk of coronary heart disease? “The novel insight suggesting that the longevity enjoyed by women over men might relate to the monthly loss…of blood is remarkable,” but is it true? I discuss this in my video Donating Blood to Prevent Heart Disease?.

The consumption of heme iron—the iron found in blood and muscle—is associated with increased risk of heart disease. Indeed, “an increase in heme iron intake of 1 mg/day appeared to be significantly associated with a 27% increase in risk of CHD,” coronary heart disease. But, heme iron is found mainly in meat, so “it is possible that some constituents other than heme iron in meat such as saturated fat and cholesterol are responsible” for the apparent link between heme iron and heart disease. If only we could find a way to get men to menstruate, then we could put the theory to the test. What about blood donations? Why just lose a little blood every month when you can donate a whole unit at a time?

A study in Nebraska suggested that blood donors were at “reduced risk of cardiovascular events,” but another study in Boston failed to show any connection. To definitively resolve the question, we would really have to put it to the test: Take people at high risk for heart disease, randomly bleed half of them, and then follow them over time and see who gets more heart attacks. Maybe it could turn “bloodletting” from the past into “bleeding-edge technology.” In fact, that was actually what was suggested in the original paper as a way to test this idea: “The depletion of iron stores by regular phlebotomy could be the experimental system for testing this hypothesis…”

It took 20 years, but researchers finally did it. Why did it take so long? There isn’t much money in bloodletting these days. I suppose the leech lobby just isn’t as powerful as it used to be.

What did the researchers find? It didn’t work. The blood donors ended up having the same number of heart attacks as the non-donor group. Something extraordinary did happen, however: The cancer rates dropped. There was a 37 percent reduction in overall cancer incidence, and those who developed cancer had a significantly reduced risk of death. An editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute responded with near disbelief, saying the “results almost seem to be too good to be true.” “Strikingly,” they started to see cancer reduction benefits within six months, after giving blood just once. As the study progressed, the cancer death rates started to diverge within just six months, as you can see at 2:46 in my video, but this is consistent with the spike in cancer rates we see within only six months of getting a blood transfusion. Is it possible that influx of iron accelerated the growth of hidden tumors?


I continue this wild story in my video Donating Blood to Prevent Cancer?.

What if you feel faint when you give blood? Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. Check out How to Prevent Fainting.

What might iron have to do with disease? See The Safety of Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron and Risk Associated with Iron Supplements.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: