This Was Then: Bad beef

When bovine TB nearly wiped out the herds.

Delivery wagon of the Island's livestock inspector, Frank Chase. His dairy farm, Wood Edge, was located near the modern site of Farm Neck Golf Club. Courtesy Chris Baer

Dairy farmers Jim Adams of Chilmark and Silas Merry of West Tisbury were both worried about the health of their herds in early 1909. They called in Frank Chase of Oak Bluffs, a fellow dairy farmer who served as the Vineyard’s official livestock inspector. Concerned by what he found, Chase called for help from the state’s Cattle Bureau in Boston. Two specialists were dispatched to the farms, where they discovered that more than two-thirds of their combined 52 cattle were infected with bovine tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis — usually referred to as “consumption” in the 19th century, and sometimes called “the great white plague” — had been a deadly killer on the Vineyard for centuries. It was easily the most common cause of death on the Island for much of its history. But by 1909, the news was getting much better. Deaths from tuberculosis in Massachusetts had been halved in the previous 20 years, as public awareness of how the bacteria was spread led to the construction of modern hospitals, better hygiene, and stricter public sanitation laws. Bovine TB, which infects humans, was commonly contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk from an infected cow.

“The farmers of Martha’s Vineyard were excited,” remarked the Globe, upon learning of this new outbreak. Adams and Merry were ordered to tear up the floors of their barns, disinfect and whitewash them. Customers of Merry’s large milk route went without delivery, as his herd was “practically wiped out.” Likewise, Adams’ dairy customers were left creamless that spring.

Normally, condemned cattle would be isolated, killed on the property, and buried locally. But due to the large percentage of the herds infected, Dr. Austin Peters, Cattle Bureau chief, ordered Chase to dispose of them in the most economically advantageous method possible: shipping them to Somerville for slaughter. “Cattle slightly infected with tuberculosis are not regarded by the U.S. bureau of animal industry as unfit for slaughter and sale as beef,” the Boston Globe wrote, citing Dr. Peters, who claimed it was common practice.

But after having “gone to this extreme” of disinfection, the Vineyard farmers thought it “astonishing that the condemned cows should be considered healthy food,” according to the Globe. Chase was particularly alarmed. He wrote Dr. Peters, concerned that it would be against the law to transport contagious animals through public streets.

But Dr. Peters overruled him, and the animals were driven on foot to Vineyard Haven. Against the initial wishes of the steamship director, the herds were boarded into an open pen upon the forward deck of the Uncatena, and sent by rail to a rendering plant in Somerville for slaughter, at considerable expense. Adams accompanied his cows all the way to their final destination. One escaped before it reached the wharf, but it was later captured and killed.

As ordered, most of the meat was sold at market as beef. There was a financial advantage to the state to not condemning them (for which the state was obligated to compensate farmers up to $40 per cow), but rather to find them only “slightly diseased” (whereby farmers would only receive whatever the butcher would pay.)

This act alarmed the public, and newspapers across the country printed stories with headlines like “Massachusetts May Eat Tuberculosis Cattle.” Dr. Peters went on record defending the action, claiming that the animals were only “slightly infected,” and that cooking the beef to 170° would render the tuberculosis harmless.

Chase was angry: “As for myself I know I shall not ask any of Dr. Peters’ inspectors to come and inspect my cows,” he told the Boston Post. “Are they trying to spread the disease so they can hold their jobs indefinitely by having more cases? Or is it all a farce anyway? How long are they to be able to sit in their easy chairs in Boston and order these things done?”