no blood for ... burger

The other weekend I went to donate blood and was turned away for eating a British burger two decades ago.

Actually, They never asked if I actually ate that Britburger. So I was turned away on suspicion of burger-eating in the UK.

I can fully understand the amount of due diligence United Blood Services has to do to screen blood donors. When you walk into the Bloodmobile you fill out a two-page questionnaire about aspects of your medical history and any other pertinent info, as they really do need to know if you've been boinking any junkies lately. They really do need to know if you're a hepatitis or HIV risk up front so they don't waste their time drawing a pint they'll have to incinerate later.

But UBS - who are truly awesome and you should go sign up with them or the Red Cross to give blood even if you are a possible burger-eater - has a few red flags that didn't make sense at first. After the big questions ("But really, are you having unprotected sex with questionable partners? We promise not to tell.") they want to know if I'd traveled to certain countries and regions, including all of Europe between 1980-96 and particularly Great Britain. Since I visited the UK and parts of the Continent 17 years ago, I answered truthfully, still wondering why they'd ask.

In the interview room, which is the size of an airplane restroom and still somehow filled with medical supplies and two seats, the technician drew a few drops and ran it through some sort of quick check, then pulled out a gigundo looseleaf notebook filled with possible reasons for disqualifying prospective donors and flowcharts for reaching them. Buried among these is a section 86ing anyone who'd visited Europe for 6 months or the UK for 3 months during that time for suspected risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

I couldn't give blood because they thought I might have Mad Cow.

Back home, I realized they didn't ask if I'd eaten any meat during my travels. Actaully, during those months I spent in Britain and Scotland I started out a vegetarian. But since one morning at a B&B in the Highlands, where we'd gotten in late and neglected to inform our hosts we were not meat-eaters, we were presented with two lovely plates brimming with bacon and bangers. I looked at my plate, I looked at her plate, I looked at her and she must have seen it in my eyes. I had Die Fleischlust. And so I cleaned both of our plates.

But I rarely ate meat, and almost never from cows or sheep, the two primary suspect groups in the UK Mad Cow scare of the 90's (technically, it was scrapie for the sheepies; plus "Mad Sheep" doesn't quite carry the meme as well). Even working nights washing dishes in a Tandoori restaurant for beer money and the awesome staff meals, it was mostly fish or chicken for me. But the regs say, if I'd so much as been there for 3 months or more it was thanks but no thanks.

These disqualifications turn out to be mandated by the FDA, and have been since 2002. There must be an assumption that if you were there for that amount of time then chances are you did your patriotic duty and had yourself a burger, or maybe even lamb kebabs. It's a sensible policy, given there's no test for CJD in living humans, and so the protocol aims to remove you from the guest list if you might have a rogue prion floating around.

But it doesn't. It's not that they didn't ask what I'd put into my body during my transatlantic trip. It's that they don't disqualify you for sipping from the dregs of the US meat industry, which is a documented high-CJD-risk activity. I don't expect the FDA to tell Americans that they can't donate blood if they've been living on anything involving feedlot-based ground beef, especially not with the current administration, but the contrast stands:

  • Spend a summer in Scotland eating fish & chips and chicken tikka, keep your stinkin' blood.
  • Eat Big Macs that may very well include neurological tissue from stressed-out feedlot cattle, well you're okay!

Despite all this, unless you've done the extended Eurotour in the 80's or early-mid 90's, go sign up to give blood. Unless of course you've been licking melamine countertops...


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