From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2000:

BOSTON, PARIS, WASHINGTON D.C.––A single atypical case of a nutritionally deficient French vegan suffering blindness hit the newswires and radio talk shows bigtime on March 23, when described by three Paris doctors in a letter published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

For a week the report of the blind vegan upstaged news of contaminated meat recalls and scientific findings about the risks of eating meat.

Normalcy returned in April, as National Cancer Institute researchers warned the annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research that a study of 900 women, including 300 with breast cancer, suggests that those who eat large amounts of charred and grilled meat had twice the risk of developing breast cancer as those who seldom or rarely eat charred or grilled meat.

“Normalcy,” over the past 40 years, is that the medical news about meat-eating is overwhelmingly bad. It appears prominently in The New York Times. But hometown newspapers, heavily dependent upon supermarket advertising, typically bury the information. And most Americans go right on eating as before, on average.

Yet the average conceals two noteworthy longtime trends.

One is that consumer spending on poultry has gradually caught up to spending on pork, while remaining far behind beef. Total poundage of flesh consumption has held steady, in effect, because of increased consumption of the least expensive meat.

The other longterm trend is that meat consumption per capita is highest among the elderly and middleaged, among both men and women, and falls off in steady progression toward the younger end of the spectrum. If the present trends continue, U.S. per capita meat consumption will drop by more than 25% over the next 25 years, simply because the people eating the most meat are dying at a faster rate.

Kellogg’s bet

Kellogg Co., begun by 19th century Seventh Day Adventist vegetarian advocate John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., on October 1, 1999 bet the $307 million price of meatless burger maker Worthington Foods Inc. that Americans are not going to maintain a meat-heavy diet for very much longer.

Kellogg anticipated correctly that the USDA would soon drop a rule that soy products not make up more than 30% of the caloric value of federally subsidized school lunches. The rule was dropped on March 9, 2000.

“Although the new rule will allow schools to offer meatless entrees, schools are more likely to use it to increase the amount of soy that they mix into hamburgers and other fare already on their menus,” predicted Associated Press farm writer Philip Brasher. But he added, “Schools will also be looking to food companies to develop soy products that children will like,” such as meatless burgers.

About 26 million children eat federally subsidized school lunches. Around 4.6 billion federally subsidized school lunches are served each year.

Edell and B-12

The story about the French vegan who went blind clearly alarmed parents and school meal planners, just as more meatless meals might have been added to the menu.

Syndicated radio health commentator Dean Edell, MD, amplified the New England Journal of Medicine report the day it appeared by asserting that “the reason you rarely see this deficiency in children who are vegans is because they get enough fecal contamination containing vitamin B-12 on their hands to supply their needs.” He went on to tout vitamin and mineral supplements as essential for adult vegans.

Responded VegSource, at www.vegsource.com:

“B-12 is the one vitamin not provided easily in the vegan diet. But in the patient who went blind, further blood tests [detailed by the New England Journal of Medicine] showed that he also had deficiencies of vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as of zinc and selenium. In other words, the man was not eating a standard vegetarian or vegan diet, which is far higher in most of these vitamins and nutrients than the diet of most omnivores. What, precisely, the man was eating was not reported. Perhaps it was only potato chips, beer, and sorbet, all of which can be vegan. The patient also had a thiamine deficiency, seldom seen in the modern world. This should have been the tipoff that the man’s problem had less to do with veganism than with a diet deficient in almost anything nutritious.”

VegSource noted that Edell’s web site, www.HealthCentral.com, offers “vitamin and mineral supplements for sale on every single page.”

A search for background re New England Journal of Medicine coverage of related topics meanwhile found a February 29, 2000 apology to readers for having published 19 drug product reviews since 1997 which were written by researchers with financial support from the drug makers––known to the journal editors, but not acknowledged in print, and published in violation of the journal’s own editorial policy. The 19 reviews constituted nearly half of the total of 40 drug reviews published by the New England Journal of Medicine during the three years in question.

So, how credible is the French report? How representative are the findings? Who knows?


Better confirmed findings about risks of meat-eating, published at almost the same time, included a report that among 341 beef carcasses tested last summer at four midwestern slaughterhouses, 148––43%––carried the deadly E. coli O157:h7 bacteria.

The study was done by the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska; was funded by the American Meat Industry Foundation; and appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the risk of the lethal bacteria getting into meat products could be prevented by testing carcasses before processing.

However, a Dayton Daily News analysis of USDA records disclosed in December 1999 that a shift from old-fashioned “poke-and-sniff” carcass inspection to scientific testing has not forced beef plants with poor sanitation to clean up their act.

Parallel to the beef study, a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service study done at 16 chicken-killing plants found that about one carcass in 100 clears inspectors despite signs of fecal contamination or disease.

The USDA as a cost-cutting measure nonetheless proposed on March 21 to move from inspecting all federally licensed meat processing plants at least once each shift to inspecting them only once a day, at random times, beginning in 2001.

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