Mad Cow Disease In New Jersey?

New Jersey's Janet Skarbek may very well be the next Erin Brockovich.

This mother and author from claims to have uncovered a cluster of people who died from mad cow disease in Cherry Hill. The state says she's wrong. But one thing is certain - Janet Skarbek is stirring up quite a bit of controversy, reports The Early Show correspondent Melinda Murphy.

That's because public health officials are hoping no one in the U.S. will ever develop the human form of mad cow disease. They've been on the lookout since America's first infected cow was discovered last December. The cow was later found to be imported from Canada, and the U.S. government says our beef supply is safe.

That's where Skarbek comes in.

Some people may call her an alarmist, but Skarbek says, "I don't feel as if I'm an alarmist. The facts - I've got people dying around me. I've had people I know die from CJD."

Which is why Skarbek is so passionate about CJD that she's put her life on hold.

CJD, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is a rare and fatal brain disorder. Although the cause of the classic or 'sporadic' form of the disease is unknown, CJD can also be inherited, or caused by contaminated tissue transplants, or by mad cow. This third type - also called variant CJD - is the disease that killed some 150 people in Britain in the 1990s.

Skarbek believes CJD killed her 29-year-old friend, Carrie Mahan, in February of 2000, when an autopsy revealed a disease that ate holes in her brain.

Authorities are studying Mahan's case because of questions about her diagnosis. Her death certificate said CJD, and Skarbek was told it occurs in approximately one in every million people.

But Skarbek became suspicious when she stumbled upon Carol Olive's obituary in her local paper three years after her friend's death.

She says, "In the first paragraph, it said she died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's what Carrie died of.' And in the second paragraph it said she worked at the Garden State Racetrack."

Which is also where Carrie Mahan had worked for years, along with Skarbek's own mother.

Skarbek's mother, Pat Hammond, says, "I mean, it was just a coincidence, only two, right? But then she took the ball and she read all about what CJD was."

That's when Skarbek found yet another local man, radio announcer John Weber, a season-pass holder at the track who had also died from CJD. And it didn't stop there.

Skarbek says, "Right now, I'm up to 12 confirmed cases of CJD, where it says CJD on their death certificates and where they all ate at the racetrack."

Skarbek believes the common thread that ties the CJD deaths together is meat tainted with mad cow disease served at the Garden State Park racetrack sometime between 1988 and 1992. Today, after years of sagging ticket sales, the track is being demolished to make way for an office park.

Skarbek says it's a cluster - an unusually high number of cases that can't be explained as coincidence. But New Jersey's Department Of Health commissioner, Dr. Clifton R. Lacy, says she has it all wrong. He confirms only four cases.

Dr. Lacey says, "The number of cases that Janet Skarbek has brought to our attention is well within the range of what would be expected to be found of people who have been in contact with a racetrack."

According to the state, the deaths did not result from the human form of mad cow disease, but from sporadic CJD, the type expected to be found among an elderly population frequenting a racetrack. But Skarbek, who has a masters degree in accounting and has even testified in front of Congress on her tax research, says the government's numbers don't add up.

Skarbek explains, "If you just take five of the victims from New Jersey that ate at the track most recently, two were out of 100 administrative employees and three were out of 1,000 season-pass holders. So out of that population of 1,100 people, we should see one case of CJD every 909 years."

But again, the New Jersey commissioner of health says Skarbek is wrong. And besides, the type of CJD found in Cherry Hill has never been associated with tainted beef.

Dr. Lacey notes, "There has been no case, no case to date, of any human being in this country acquiring variant CJD, which is the human form of mad cow infecting humans ever in our history in this country."

But new research being done in Europe opens the door to the possibility that a mad cow infection in humans might not always look like variant CJD, which is Skarbek's worst fear.

Her crusade is causing quite a stir, starting with her appearance on the in January. And more recently, Skarbek was profiled in The New York Times Sunday magazine. Since then, she's been inundated with questions from people wanting to know more.

One such case is that of George Young, the former general manager of the New York Giants.

Skarbek says, "He had died of CJD in, I believe, 2001. And his wife had read The New York Times article. And then had called me and said, 'We ate at the racetrack and my husband died of CJD.'"

Whether the number of CJD cases in New Jersey is mere coincidence or a true cluster remains to be seen. But with an incubation period that can last for years, Skarbek fears the last remaining traces of the Garden State Park Racetrack could be the tip of a mad cow iceberg.

Skarbek has asked for an official investigation because of harassment she experienced, which she believes is related to her mad cow research.

Since The Early Show shot this story earlier this month, her list of cases she's convinced are CJD has grown by three people to a total of 15 and the state of New Jersey is planning a May press conference to discuss their study results.

And in an important sidebar, the United State's No.1 beef importer, Japan, has banned U.S. beef imports since December's mad cow scare. So far, the USDA has refused to let meatpackers test their own cows in an effort that the packers hoped would get the ban lifted.