Mad Cowboy Interview 06: Dr. Michael Greger
(Part 02 of 02)


M: "You mentioned the CDC [US Centers for Disease Prevention & Control]. There's two things regarding the CDC that intrigued me from reading your book. First, you point out that the CDC recommendations on how we handle meat in the kitchen, for those people who eat meat, "don't touch the meat," "don't touch the packages," and so on, are akin to teaching consumers how to operate a "biohazard" lab. Yet, at the same time, they [the CDC] doesn't believe that people can be effectively "motivated to take proactive precautions to prepare for a possible pandemic."

It's ironic, because in our recent interview with Dr. Esselstyn, he said that this is what most cardiac professionals say regarding their heart disease patients adopting a very low-fat vegan diet to reverse their disease, that the patient is incapable of taking the precautions and doing what they suggest."

G: "That really is a patronizing attitude. In fact you're right, there is that kind of tug on both ends with the meat industry really trying to push the responsibility onto the consumer, but then there's this understanding that the consumer does not have the information, or perhaps the motivation, to take the kinds of steps really necessary to protect their health. It's important to recognize that 76 million Americans every year come down with food poisoning. That's 1 in 4. We may remember a co-worker having 24/48 hour flu, but there's no such thing as a 24 hour flu, a 48 hour flu... that was food poisoning. There's no such thing as the stomach flu, that's a colloquial term that is essentially food poisoning. And that just speaks to how really contaminated our food supply is with these fecal passages... these intestinal passages from animals, causing 76 million Americans to become ill every year."

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M: "What are some of the proactive and defensive strategies an individual can take?"

G: "Well, all of these bugs that we're talking about, with the exception of mad cow disease, can be utterly destroyed by proper cooking. The problem is that people bring animal products into their home which are fresh or frozen (and not precooked), and therefore by the time it's been picked up in a grocery store and by the time it gets into an oven, and cooked to a proper temperature with a meat thermometer, there's a number of opportunities for cross-contamination.

For example, if a family is having a raw salad with their meal, there could be contamination of the cutting board, of the knife, utensils, sink, sponge, with the hands... a bit of fluid can drip to the floor and a toddler pick it up. There's a number of opportunities for the live active pathogen in that uncooked meat coming into the kitchen to contaminate the environment before it comes out of the oven. Bird flu is like that... not only do we have to worry about proper cooking, but improper handling is the main reason people get infected. 76 million Americans come down with illnesses that are totally destroyed by proper cooking. How are they getting infected? They're getting it before it's cooked."

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M: "You also mention in the book that, according to the Mayo Clinic, the "10 worst sources of contagion are our fingers.""

G: "The concern is not that we will get this disease from infected birds primarily, although in those affected areas one might want to think twice about poultry consumption. The concern is that it'll mutate into a form easily transmissible from one person to another, thereby triggering the next pandemic and then birds are really out of the picture. You get it just the way you get the regular flu --- from somebody else... an infected co-worker, children coming home from school, from causal contacts with contaminated objects like the gas pump handle, a light switch, or an elevator button. Anything which can potentially carry a contagion that are on people's hands, they cough on their hands, they twist a doorknob and then the virus can wait up to 48 hours for just the right circumstances to infect the next person touching that handle, and then not washing or decontaminating their hands before touching their face, their eyes, nose, and mouth, and they've infected themselves.

During a pandemic there's nothing magical about this virus. You stay away from people, you'll stay away from an infection. With a virus this deadly, the primary strategy is not to get infected in the first place. Yes, if one has antivirals like Tamiflu, it may help in the case of one getting infected, but you don't want to get infected in the first place, and the way one does that is that during a pandemic you self-isolate, you quarantine yourself. It's called "sheltering in place" within one's home until the pandemic wave passes. The pandemic may last 12 to 18 months globally, it comes in waves, and in any particular local a wave may last weeks. That's why we're urging all Americans, right now, to have weeks of essential supplies, food, and water stockpiled, in the event that the Federal Government will call for a general voluntary self-quarantine in one's home to slow down the rate of the pandemic."

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M: "One of the things that's impressed me most about your book, and particularly your website, is that you obviously worked very hard at creative and effective ways at presenting information to arm people with the knowledge they need. The website's interactive version of your table of contents, all the book's text, and the amazing "search by term" capabilities couple with hyperlinked footnotes (over 3,000), are all incredibly useful for helping "wrap one's brain" around Avian Flu issues. A digital video is available, and you've got "best of" blogs, articles, and news. I was amazed at how comprehensive the book and website are together. The level of effort you put into this work begs the question: why? What inspired you to put this all together?"

G: "It started from my post-graduate medical work at Lemuel Shattuck Hospitall up in Boston. They had one of the last locked TB [tuberculosis] wards in the nation, did some of the best AIDs work in the country. I was struck every day by these people dying of these infectious diseases, and I remembered growing up when there was no HIV/AIDs, and I kept thinking to myself "where did this disease come from in the first place?" "Why are we having such difficult treating these people?" That's really what started me on this journey and the whole interest in emerging infectious disease.

Then, in light of H5N1, this flu virus was killing over half the people it infects, I started thinking that we've really got to prevent the emergence of these diseases in the first place. Let's take a step back. Yes, we can exclude Downer Cows from the food supply, but how did they get this disease in the first place? And so if one looks at these emerging infectious diseases, one realizes that they don't just come out of nowhere. SARs, seemed to come from these large animal markets. HIV/AIDs from the bushmeat trade in Africa, mad cow disease came from cannibalistic animal feeding practices, and bird flu, this highly pathogenic bird flu H5N1 seems to come from this intensification of the global poultry industry in Southeast Asia.

This goes both ways, though. Along with human culpability comes hope. If changes in human behavior can cause new diseases, then changing human behavior may prevent them in the future."

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M: "As a vegan I've generally felt that so many diseases can be prevented by not eating meat and dairy. From reading your book and speaking with you, I realize now that even more diseases that could be prevented by not producing meat to begin with."

G: "And now, of course, with the FAO report on global warming suggesting that livestock production is playing a major role in climate change, one realizes that regardless of whether or not one's own dietary preferences are making a statement, it's not enough. We have to really work against this system."

M: "I remember you writing that raising chickens is really a global issue. The scope of what this suggests in terms of planetary impact on humans and other species goes beyond just environmental."

G: "...and this is not like mad cow disease. You don't want to get mad cow disease, you don't eat beef, you don't eat products containing beef by-products, you don't get a blood transfusion from somebody who ate meat, and essentially you won't get mad cow disease. Bird flu is different. Once bird flu jumps species into humans, it doesn't matter what you eat. So in one sense, then we're all vulnerable, but in another sense, that's all that matters... what we eat, what we as a species choose as our protein sources, can have these global public health implications."

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M: "One of the things Howard asked me to emphasize, is how impressed he is with you, your character, your dedication and motivation... your tireless energy. On a personal level, I was quite surprised to learn that you give away all profits from your books, speaking engagements, and DVDs to charity. That's amazing... I mean, you really walk your talk. Two books, three DVDs (two on cooking sold out, one on mad cow disease still available), you're a gourmet vegan cook (contributing some excellent recipes to Howard's latest book, "No More Bull!")... constant speaking engagements, and a full-time job. HOW do you relax? Do you relax?"

G: (laughing): "... I assume it's the same motivation for Howard, too. The reason we do this work is that it really seizes us and... makes us feel like part of the solution. There's such tremendous challenges facing us as a species. I think we need to each need to feel that we're part of making the world a better place for ourselves, for future generations. When I am tempted to take time off, I don't enjoy that time off because I realize I'm no longer working towards those solutions. The time I spend away from it is time I could be getting some good work done. I'm tremendously privileged to be in a position where I can pursue this work full-time, so I want to take full advantage of that and maybe inspire others to make this their life work as well."

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M: "How long have you been a vegan?"

G: "Oh... for 17 years."

M: "What precipitated that decision? Was it your research?"

G: "I was at Farm Sanctuary [New York]. Gene took me to a stockyard in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Gave me a tour. It's a matter of seeing it with your own eyes, I think. I mean, that's really what does it. You can read about, see pictures... even watch a video, but you can't smell it. You can't hear it. You're not surrounded by it. That's what did it for me. Maybe that's from my lack of imagination. Some people can read a book and that's it! That's amazing. They can change their lives. For me, it took that extra push. I needed to kind of experience it, and once I was in that environment feeding these animals... that was it."

M: "So you came at if from an AR standpoint?"

G: "Essentially. I was eating pretty unhealthy [laughs]... but then, everything else obviously made sense, too. Of course as I went into Medicine I recognized that basically everyone I was seeing in the hospital, as Dr. Esselstyn has said, was there because of their own choices. But it wasn't really their choices, because there wasn't this information out there. You know, the people we were seeing dying of Emphysema grew up when there were ads with doctors and their favorite brands of cigarettes. We're in a similar situation today, people just don't realize it... that their food choices can have such impact not only on their own health, but now on global health, both environmentally and in terms of public health. But I think slowly but surely these connections are being made from all different directions, and I think it's really an exciting time."

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M: "You've such great compassion for people. I remember first meeting you in a large hotel room at a conference packed with people who couldn't afford the normal hotel rates, so you helped them all out. I was there contributing some supplies from my own room."

G: (laughs): "Well, I had a free room!"

M: "Do you have any favorite food indulgences you just tell me and 4,000 subscribers?"

G: (laughs): "I'm really impressed with this new Scottish vegan cheese [Sheese]. Pangea and other mail-orders have it. For environmental reasons, we should all try to buy and eat local, but this is kind of the antithesis... it's my indulgence... having vegan cheese shipped from the other side of the world."

M: "... for maybe a Reuben sandwich, or would it go with a glass of red wine on the side?"

G: "I mean, it's so good it can be eaten "wine and crackers style." There's also sorts of exotic flavors that vegans don't even recognize as being types of cheese."

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M: "If you could have a "dinner party" with guests from any time period in history, who would you invite?"

G: "Wow... there's so many great figures. Gandhi... if he's not fasting! George Bernard Shaw. It would be a very intellectual dinner. Lots of great minds from history."

M: "Any scientists?"

G: "Noam Chomsky would be at the table, and he's still around. It's all about what strategies to get people really thinking about these crises, so I'd love to get some good input from him."

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M: "Any books or people what have particularly influenced or inspired you?"

G: "In my field there was one person talking about mad cow disease before Dr. Greger, and that was Howard Lyman. He was doing that before anyone was doing it. He was speaking about the mad cow epidemic in Britain in the late 80's before the media blackout was lifted here in North America. I was still totally ignorant. People like him led the way. In fact, much of my work is really not original in the sense I just have to pull it together and try to make it readable to the lay person. Basically, the science is already there, the work has been done.

Just like with the Atkin's book [Dr. Greger's book in response was "Carbophobia"]... here we have these low carb diets, that literally have been around for more then a century, and we have a century of science telling that they're ineffective, they're unscientific and potentially dangerous to human health, yet every few decades another bestseller arrives... there's a disconnect between what science is saying, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cardiology Association... with all of the major medical public health authorities saying it on one side, versus the public perception... so for me, much of my work is bridging that gap, building the bridge between the science and public and making it accessible. I didn't do any "research" per se on low carb diets, but I was able to bring the reality out."

M: "Yup... yesterday another study came out, from Stanford, indicating that the Atkins diet enabled people to lose more weight than Ornish's [Ornish response]"

G: "I haven't seen that yet... there's a lot of ways one can unhealthfully lose weight in the short term, whether it's cocaine, or heroin, or tobacco... amphetamines. The question is: can you keep it off and can you do it in a way that you're not clogging your arteries with saturated animal fat? Every single long term study that has been done, a year or longer, shows that Atkins utterly fails in terms of weight loss, and of course their cholesterol profile goes down the tubes."

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M: "Okay... here's your chance to change it all. The situation: Dennis Kucinich has managed to win the 2008 Presidential Election. He put Howard Lyman in charge of all Cabinet-level staffing. Howard has named you the new Public Health and Food Safety Czar, with full authority and funding to do whatever you feel necessary. What would you do?"

G: (laughs): "Number One: I would take all the food safety concerns out of the realm of the USDA, and that's what has been done in other countries. For example in Britain, the MAFF [Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food], essentially their version of the USDA, was completely disbanded, basically destroyed, and all food safety authority was put in a new "Food Standards Agency," where it should be, with public health experts and away from the ones that actually control agriculture. The USDA has this inherent conflict of interest. On the one hand, their mandate is to promote agricultural products, but at the same time they're the ones in charge of protecting America's health, they do the meat inspections, etc. There's this inherent conflict of interest and may really explain what's at the root cause of why there's so many food safety problems, why tens of thousands of Americans get sick, and thousands [5,000] end up in hospitals and die from food-borne illnesses every year. This doesn't need to happen. Yes, we hear about food poisoning, but can you imagine going out to eat or feeding your child something that could end up having to put them in the hospital on dialysis, or even kill them? We should not have to cook the crap out of our meat --- it shouldn't be there in the first place.

Food safety should go under the Department of Health and Human Services, to break that kind of political stranglehold the USDA has on these issues. That's nothing unique, this is what the National Academy of Sciences and Institutes of Medicine have called for... this is what the public health community has called for, but unfortunately there's this tremendous amount of power within the [Washington DC] Beltway with agricultural interests preventing movement in that direction. That's Number One on the list: separating out the promotion of agricultural products with the protection of the food supply in America."

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M: "Any closing comments or thoughts about the potential pandemic?"

G: "Well, it all comes down to a basic question, that is, is it worth risking the lives of millions of people for the sake of cheaper chicken? I encourage people to go to my website. The entire text of the book is online for free, so there's no excuse for not having this information to protect themselves and my contact information is on the website as well, so feel free to contact me anytime for anything.

It's important for us to educate ourselves and our families, and our communities, and actually do something. Go to the school boards, go to these town meetings, bring up "what are you doing for pandemic preparedness?" Go in your corporations, your places of work, churches, synagogues, and whatever institutions you are involved with and ask what are they doing to prepare for the next pandemic. If you need help, contact me."

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