Thursday, January 21, 2010


As mentioned in a previous post, I'm reading a really interesting book right now called The Family That Couldn't Sleep by D.T. Max. It's about an Italian family that is prone to an extremely rare neurological illness--rare for the general population, that is, but not for them. About one person in 6 million gets fatal familial insomnia, but in this family, it's more like one in two.

It's a fascinating book that covers all sorts of ground, everything from Italian culture and history to the personalities of brilliant, egotistical scientists, and the mad cow scare in England in the 1990s.

I'm up to that last part (mad cow) right now, and I've been learning some really interesting facts about BSE or "bovine spongiform encephalopathy." I remember in the 90s, the common belief about mad cow disease was that if you happened to eat infected meat just once in your life, you could end up developing mad cow disease 50 years later. That's no longer really believed to be true (although, who knows?):

"It can be estimated, based on a European Union scientific committee's work, that the English ate as many as 640 billion doses of BSE during the crisis as a whole [1980s-1990s]. As it happens, BSE crosses from cow to human only with difficulty, but this fact wasn't anything the British government knew. They underestimated the initial threat, ignored the unique nature of the disease agent, and allowed bureaucracy and cattle industry profits to trump speed and openness. When in doubt, they formed a committee. The one thing they had on their side was luck. Fortunately, prions aren't as infectious as, say, the flu. If they were, only long-time vegetarians would be alive in England today."

In other words, the good news is, it's not that easy for humans to get mad cow disease. The bad news is, the English government didn't actually know that during the 10 year lag between realizing there was a problem and actually doing something about it. It's only dumb luck that kept millions of people from dying of mad cow, instead of the 160 or so people (mostly teenagers, for some reason) that actually did.

Anyway, getting back to that decade-long lag during which the British government pretended they were protecting the public and that they had it all under control when, in reality, they totally did not...Here's a morbidly funny anecdote from the book about that:

"British beef and its promoters fought back. The agriculture minister, John Gummer, fed his daughter a hamburger at a TV photo-op. (But four-year-old Cordelia made a face that suggested she'd rather be eating anything else--it was later reported that she found the hamburger too hot--and the moment registered in the British mind as only a failed photo-op can. The phrase 'doing a Gummer' remains in British political lexicon for such moments.) Officials went on tour to try to persuade English schools to put beef back on the menu. The Meat and Livestock Commission, a government-funded organization that helped promote British farm products, sponsored a contest to find 'the tastiest and most innovative children's novelty meat product.' The winner was 'Oinkies,' a combination of sausage meat and cheddar balls."

Mmmm, Oinkies. I have to admit, that actually sounds delicious to me. But it also reminds me of this Kids In the Hall skit about "Poreef," the disgusting pork-beef hybrid that featured "low price" as its only convincing selling point:


  1. I've never seen this sketch! But I do know that character. I remember he was selling an electric organ in a mall once.

    I love Scott's little "what?" when he unveils the product.

  2. Heh heh! I like Scott Thompson's character too, the way that old lady is so obsessed with getting her free sample!!

    Have you ever gone to Costco and eaten the free samples? One day I was there and really hungry. My mom had always said that you could almost make a meal out of the free samples there, so I tried it, and she was right! I couldn't believe how many samples there were.

  3. Oh yeah, but not in a while. For some reason I don't go there anymore now that we no longer have to buy diapers. When I go to Trader Joe's with Leah we always take advantage of whatever they're giving out.

  4. Hey, I'm reading that book as well! And I googled oinkies -pig and that's how I found this post. Also, I like Kids in the Hall and the hamburger dress. Nice blog!

  5. Oh, cool! Thanks for saying hi. :)