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Of course they're mad; wouldn't you be?

11:00 PM, Jan 11, 2004 • By LARRY MILLER
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WELL, you live, and you learn.

We've all heard that a million times, and said it a million times. And why not? After all, it's true. If you keep living, you keep learning. As the other old saw goes, you learn something new every day.

Naturally enough, the things we learn don't always please us. Here's one I wasn't so thrilled about.

Exactly how long have we been eating cows that were so sick they had to be dragged across the floor just to be killed?

Which calmly leads us to an interesting question: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I'm not talking about the mad cow they found. That was just one, and if you believe the spokespeople from the government--I don't, but let's pretend I do--mad cows are only dangerous to us if we eat the actual brain with the holes in it. Every official I've seen at a podium in the last few weeks has insisted that all the rest of the meat, even in cows with brains that look like 30-year-old sponges, is just fine. Okay. As long as that steer is so Jim-dandy, I'd like to cut a nice, thick rib-eye from it, grill 'er up, set it in front of the secretary of Agriculture and say, "You want onions with that?"

A quick word on brain-eating. It is, apparently, something some of our friends in Merry Olde England still do, which goes a long way to explaining a lot of Boy George's clothes. To these hearty Britons, our cousins and allies, I would like to say: Stop doing that immediately. We're not living in "Sweeney Todd." It was probably necessary around the time King Harold took that arrow in the eye, but I think we can all move on to, shall we say, greener pastures.

Of course, it's not just them. Every culture in history knows a good deal about being frugal with all-too-rare sources of food, and the Jews, Irish, Italians, Africans, Asians--in fact everyone's ancestors as recently as their great-grandparents probably knew how to cook and eat parts of the animal he, himself, was not over-fond of. ("Honey, this is delicious, but I think you put too much paprika on it. I'm crying." "You'd be crying a lot more if I didn't. That's the rectum.")

BUT BACK to the larger question. How, in God's name, did anyone ever get the idea that it's okay to drag anything that still has a twitching hoof into the slaughterhouse to be wrapped in cheerful plastic and shipped? Never mind "mad," what are these--crippled cows? Diseased? Unconscious? Drunk? At least that one I could understand. Talk about humane.

"It's almost time, Bossie. Can I top that one off for you?"

"Don't mind if I do, pard'. But I think you're the one getting bossy. Heh-heh."

(I know puns are annoying, but sometimes you can't resist. As a matter of fact, wouldn't a cow with an attitude like that be a little saucy? Sorry. In fact, as long as these cows have to be dragged to the hangman, why don't they just send a bunch of deputies? You know, a posse. Forgive me. Say, I wonder if the cows that can't walk get green lichen growing on their legs, which would make them, uh, mossy. I've got to stop. Maybe watching a movie will take my mind off it. Like "All That Jazz," the one about Bob Fosse.)

Okay, I'm back. I checked into the local Pun Center for some electro-shock, and I'm a hundred percent, although now they have to drag me around.

In case anyone in the beef business thinks "downed" or "dropped" cows don't matter, why don't they make it a separate category with different prices? Would you buy the dragged meat, or the guaranteed "walkers" for a dollar more?

Frankly, I'm appalled by the whole thing. I can't believe this is the only way for them to make money. No one is a bigger capitalist than me, but if this episode doesn't give Michael Moore another 20 minutes in his act, I don't know what would. With the possible exception of John Ashcroft wiretapping the ACLU.

I eat meat and my family eats meat, and in fact I plan on eating some as soon as I finish this thing. I'm not a rancher, I'm not a packer, I'm not a shipper, and I won't presume to tell them how to make a living. But I'm afraid that from now on I'll have to try my best to buy meat from cows that haven't been force-fed things they'd never eat on their own, that haven't been shot up with antibiotics, and that haven't been terrified at their deaths by standing on a Motor Vehicle Bureau-line watching every beast in front of them scream like, well, pigs.

And that haven't been dragged.

MAYBE WE'LL SEE A CHANGE in products and marketing from this. Maybe there will be organic or grass-fed meats, brands that guarantee their cows were healthy all their lives and healthy at the end. Until then, and even after then, I have an answer, at least for myself.