Sunday, February 3, 2008

One more step down the road to vegetarianism

If you haven't already stopped eating slaughterhouse meat, well, there's no better time. For a full-scale primer, I recommend picking up Eric Schlosser's eponymous Fast Food Nation, which, working backward from an in-depth, scathing, and deeply poetic investigation of the fast food industry, spends multiple chapters detailing the ills of our modern meat industry. Suffice to say for now that he chronicles - and amply documents - horrifying failings in sanitation, safety, oversight, and, of course, animal welfare. The meat our nation's industry produces is not biologically or ethically safe to eat, and while you don't just have to take Eric Schlosser's word for that, he's a good place to start. The book, a few years old now but hardly out of date, is a modern homage to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and should be every bit as much a call to action.

For now, though, what got me thinking about this stuff was one more nail in the coffin of my tolerance for this appalling industry: this fascinating piece on an autoimmune disorder developed by slaughterhouse workers exposed to aerosolized pig brains.

That's right: they accidentally snorted pig brains. And it's eating their brains.

If you're like me, your first thought upon seeing the headline was probably of vCJD - variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, the human version of BSE ("Mad Cow") - and how vCJD prions must have been transmitted through the airborne brain tissue. It's a good guess, but in this case the answer is both simpler and more insidious.

You see, in many ways, pigs are very similar to humans. This is why diabetics for many, many years have used pig insulin in their treatment, and why pigs were chosen to be the transgenic hosts for human insulin genes later on down the line. It's also why pig organs are occasionally considered when a human needs a transplant. (It is also, I feel obligated to note, why human flesh is reputably said to taste like pork.) Relevant to this case, many of the proteins in pig neural tissue are very closely related to proteins in human neural tissue.

When foreign biological matter is introduced into our bodies, our immune systems mobilize a response against it intended to neutralize any threat and then coat and destroy the antigen. This is the basis for all immune response, be it to viral or bacterial invaders, a splinter, or as the case may be, inhaled pig brains. Antibodies, the primary component of the secondary (big) immune response, are specifically created and targeted by a really incredibly cool but complicated process (that I won't get into here) to bind to and thus mark for deletion very specific pieces of macromolecules in biological tissue that the body recognizes as "other." These specific pieces are usually oligopeptides, small pieces of foreign protein that have been broken down by one of a few types of big mean phagocytic white blood cell.

There's a whole lot more to the immune response than that - even the basics. Indeed, I took more than a year of advanced coursework on the subject and I'm still a relative novice. The important point here, though, is that the body produces massive numbers of specifically targeted antibodies in response to foreign biomatter.

The hitch comes when parts of that biomatter are marked as foreign but closely resemble the body's own tissue. In this case, apparently pig brain tissue had certain protein sequences that were close enough to sequences in the human brain tissue of the victims that the antibodies and other immune response molecules which were supposed to be targeted at the pig brains began binding to and attacking the victims' own brains instead. This generated a chronic inflammatory neural disorder. What that means in layman's terms is that these slaughterhouse workers, many of whom were immigrants who didn't speak much English and didn't know their rights, were struck with long-term, debilitating pain, weakness, burning sensations, and even paralysis.

From snorting pig brains.

I rate this particular horror as follows (out of a possible 10 on each count):

Ick factor: 8.8 (they fucking inhaled aerosolized pig brains)
Awfulness: 7.1 (most of the victims are making partial recoveries, but inflammatory brain diseases are ugly)
Prevalence: 1.8 (it affected only a dozen people, though the possibility that something like this might be happening elsewhere in other slaughterhouses is not low)
Inexorability: 3.0 (it's unlikely to be an unstoppable problem)
Piteousness: 7.8 (it was totally avoidable by very simple measures, and happened to people who almost certainly had no better prospects and no way to know what was happening to them)

On the whole, I suggest that U.S. pork producers adopt the following as an internal safety-focused counterpoint to their venerable marketing slogan:



Ben said...

Man up, Texas boy. If you can't snort some hog cerebrum, well, you're just strange.

And when are you gonna review Rock Band?

George said...

I like your scale for rating tragedy. I may have to steal that for later use.

And did you see the big-screen version of Fast Food Nation? I watched about half of it before the library copy started skipping and that was enough to give me all sorts of heebie-jeebies. I much prefer a straightforward comedy like Fido any day...