What has four stomachs, killed 176 Britons, and cost England billions of dollars? With recent news of a 4th American falling ill from the ingestion of beef infected with mad cow disease, that riddle has a particularly grim significance.
Mad cow disease, known by the scientific community as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or BSE), is a neurodegenerative disease spread epizootically to humans by the ingestion of infectious material. In humans, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) ravages the brain tissue, leaving holes and reducing its texture to something vaguely resembling a sponge. Both diseases are caused by destructive misfolded proteins, called prions, which have been able to infect deer and sheep too.
The news of the recent death has raised considerable health concerns as to the disposal of animals potentially harboring disease-causing prions. How do you kill a molecule that is not disturbed by sterilization techniques, such as: ultraviolet light, freezing, detergents, X-rays, 1000 degrees Fahrenheit? Well, the United States Department of Agriculture bought a digestor.
The digestor is a pressurized oven that is faster, cheaper, and less environmentally damaging than a traditional incinerator. The USDA began testing the digestor in November of last year with deer tissue containing dangerous prions and has since confirmed its validity. Now approximately 30-40 digestors are in public use at veterinary schools, government disease control facilities, and animal diagnostic centers across the country.
In the case of an outbreak, the company that patented the digestor has designed a plant that could potentially liquidate 240 tons of carcasses a day. The cost of such a digestor, housing site, capable water system, and animal removal/transport equipment would cost upwards of $2 million.
If funded by the USDA or other federal agency, this machine would ease the financial burden of disposing of possibly hazardous cow, deer, and sheep material across the country.