Janet Skarbek, author and self-help guru, is on a crusade — a crusade she believes will turn the current debate about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) prevention on its head.

Never mind the debate — it's a moot issue because BSE already is in the U.S., she contends. And she's not referring to the infected dairy cow in Washington state that originated in Canada.

Skarbek's experience with BSE was sparked last year during a casual reading of an obituary page. The obituary that caught her eye concerned a woman who had died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the same disorder that killed Skarbek's friend several years earlier. A form of this disease, known as variant CJD, is considered the human equivalent of BSE, and is presumably caused by eating tainted beef.

The fact these two victims lived so close to each other unnerved Skarbek. What chilled her to the bone was the discovery that the victim, like her friend, had worked at Garden State Racetrack in Cherry Hill, NJ. Could it be the two victims contracted the disease from eating tainted beef in the racetrack's restaurant?

Through an exhaustive study of regional obituaries and other sources, she claims to have uncovered 12 confirmed CJD cases with some connection to the racetrack from 1988 to 1992. Adding even more support to her case, she says, is that within the past 15 months, five CJD deaths have occurred within a two-county area of northern New Jersey. That's a much higher incidence than would be projected.

Weird? Yes. Convincing? Not by a long shot.

All we know for sure is that Skarbek has amassed a set of facts that probably would frighten most people.

One problem is that none of the cases associated with what is now known as the Cherry Hill Cluster involve the variant form of CJD associated with BSE. The deaths have been linked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the relatively more common sporadic CJD. While the two diseases are similar in some respects, the damage they cause to the brain is quite different, which means the likelihood of misdiagnosis in all cases is remote.

But, Skarbek argues she's discovered an entirely new version of CJD, possibly one that originated in the U.S. Even if true, it's a stretch to assume it's connected to the variant form of CJD. A more plausible explanation is that it is an offshoot of the more common sporadic CJD, especially since brain damage sustained by the victims more closely resembled this form of the disease.

Skarbek also has failed to turn up anything more than a circumstantial link between the restaurant and the majority of CJD cases. I emphasize “majority” because the latest victim, a 62-year-old northern New Jersey man, apparently had no link to the racetrack restaurant. She can't even be certain that all the victims ordered meat at the restaurant, which, incidentally, was stocked by more than two dozen suppliers during the years exposure to CJD supposedly occurred.

Even if there is some common cause behind all these CJD cases, how can she be certain it's not traceable to some other factor? Years from now, someone may even uncover evidence confirming that the connection with the restaurant was entirely coincidental and the cause was some common genetic trait shared by most or all of the victims.

Speaking of coincidental, Skarbek's theory may turn out to be nothing more than that — a bizarre series of events that occur for no reason, such as when lightning strikes the same place more than once — a fluke.

True, the five CJD deaths occurring within the last 15 months vastly exceed the rate that otherwise would be projected for the two counties. Even so, this hasn't affected the number of CJD cases that would be projected for the entire state — a fact pointed out in the February issue of BEEF (page 28) by Steven Milloy of www.JunkScience.com, a noted debunker of the supposed link between BSE and variant CJD.

Skarbek isn't the first person to uncover what was initially perceived as a CJD cluster. For years, some investigators attributed a similar cluster of cases to the tiny village of Queniborough, England. Yet, much like the alleged Cherry Hill cases, the evidence remains sketchy and there's no proof with absolute certainty that a link to tainted beef actually exists.

Most, though certainly not all, medical investigators believe they have plenty of reasons to suspect a link between BSE and CJD in humans — a conviction that ultimately may prove true. But the proverbial smoking gun — a conclusive link between BSE and CJD — continues to elude researchers.

Jean Weese is an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist and Auburn University (AU) associate professor of nutrition and food science. She researched the BSE issue as part of an AU interdisciplinary project underway to develop a monoclonal antibody for detecting meat-and-bone meal in animal feed.