Richard Rhodes

Deadly Feasts

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Deadly Feasts Summary

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Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague is a work of scientific nonfiction by Richard Lee Rhodes. First published in 1997, the book traces the origins of BSE and considers the danger this disease poses to modern society. The book is very popular with scientists, medical professionals, and students for its broad approach to medical science. Rhodes is an American historian and journalist who writes both fiction and nonfiction. He’s the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and many of his works are bestsellers. He once testified before the U.S. Senate on the implications of nuclear energy.

In the book, Rhodes considers how vastly the human diet has changed over the centuries. Although humans used to rarely eat meat, an animal-centered diet is very common nowadays. The problem with this diet, Rhodes says, is that meat contains potentially fatal viruses and bacteria, one strain of which is incurable. This disease is known as bovine springiform encephalopathy, or “BSE.” It’s colloquially known as “mad cow disease” because it’s often found in beef, and it turns cows “mad.” As beef plays such a significant role in our diets, BSE also affects many of us.

Rhodes explains that BSE is just one of a worrying group of brain diseases known as TSEs. TSEs kill every living thing they infect by causing irreversible brain damage. Most people infected with BSE, according to Rhodes, die within a year through complications. Many people die within months from infections such as pneumonia.

More alarmingly, the disease spreads because of intensive modern livestock procedures, as Rhodes explains. Nowadays, farmers turn cows into cannibals. Farmers feed processed cow parts to other cows, which alters their brain and neurological chemistry. When these cows are later slaughtered, humans consume this altered tissue which in turn infects the human brain. Although cooking beef at high temperatures helps combat the disease, there’s always a risk involved whenever we prepare and consume beef.

Although Deadly Feasts is highly scientific in nature, Rhodes attempts to make it accessible to a wider audience. He takes readers back to the beginning of the story, when scientists first discover an illness affecting cannibals. He traces the virus’s history right through to the present day, and he uses a detective-mystery-style narrative more often found in fiction books. However, Rhodes assumes that most readers have a scientific background and so there are many scientific terms he doesn’t explain.

What we refer to now as BSE began in 1800s New Guinea. The Fore people ate their dead as part of the mourning ritual. Skip forward to the 1950s, and it is mostly women who still perform this ritual. By 1957, there’s an outbreak of a disease called kuru. Kuru makes sufferers choke, stagger, and panic, and they die quickly. It seems contagious, but no one knows how it’s spreading. It’s mainly affecting women.

Similar cases are identified in Germany, and scientists examine various brains for clues. The brains have a spongy appearance, which isn’t normal. Veterinarians find sheep and cattle with similar brain damage, and it’s clear that there’s a connection. The problem is, scientists and veterinarians can’t agree on what this connection is. No one understands how a disease like this is contracted, transmitted, or treated, and it spreads shockwaves through the scientific community. Eventually, scientists arrive at the conclusion—humans contract BSE from animals, and it’s deadly.

Although Deadly Feasts focuses primarily on the science behind BSE, it also considers what we can do to eradicate BSE, or at least reduce the risks of contracting it. We can still eat meat, Rhodes says, so long as we prepare it responsibly. We must reconsider how we industrialize our agriculture. It’s possible to support a meat-eating population while maintaining higher standards of animal welfare and disease control.

Rhodes notes that we must stop experimenting on animals to find a cure for BSE. Animal cruelty is never an answer. The only acceptable solutions are either vegetarianism or improved animal welfare. If we raised animals under controlled and sanitary conditions, we’d limit the diseases entering the food chain. Animal testing is not an acceptable response to the BSE crisis, and Rhodes is very clear on this.

Deadly Feasts also considers what other diseases we might contract from animals in the future. Rhodes worries that genetically-modified tissue from animals is entering our food chain and we can’t possibly imagine the consequences yet. Although cattle and pigs are most likely to infect humans with BSE, any animal may contaminate us. This possibility, as Rhodes explains, has frightening implications for us all.

Although Rhodes doesn’t say we should all become vegetarians, he admits that it would solve many global problems if we transferred to meat-free diets. We wouldn’t expose ourselves to these illnesses, we wouldn’t treat animals so poorly, and we’d cause less pollution to the atmosphere. There are many compelling cases for vegetarianism, and BSE prevention is one of them.