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The Great BSE Blunder: Years of Tory Misrule

from EVU News, Issue 1 /1997 - Deutsch

Colin Spencer is President of The Guild of Food Writers. Since 1980 he has published over 15 books on vegetarian food and cookery, including The Heretic’s Feast - a history of vegetarianism. He is also a campaigning journalist and over the years has alerted the public to the exploitation of livestock and other scandals in contemporary agriculture.

What in a few years is going to happen to the meat and dairy industry? This huge monolith bestrides our diet (stuffing us with saturated fat), has colonised our countryside (polluting landfills and waterways) and has dominated our food industry, which creams off the largest of the EC food subsidies. I pose the question because I believe the continuing prevalence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE – popularly known as mad cow disease) in half our dairy herds is a time bomb ticking away and that Doomsday is just around the corner. I am not a lone voice in this belief. Apart from other critics of government lassitude, who include many distinguished people, I have long suspected that the government knows it, too. For they put off for ten years the commitment to the necessary research which would explore the likelihood of BSE passing into the human population.

They have done nothing because they feared to dismantle a huge and profitable industry, which the taxpayer subsidises and whose products they injest on their inevitable way to becoming ill or dying from a fatty surfeit of them. If the government did not feel helpless, alarmed and in a state of panic, right from the beginning, why were the statistics from 1985 onwards fudged? In 1988 and 1989 the Ministry of Agriculture alleged that 7 cases of BSE had occurred in 1986, but in 1993 the 7 had grown to 60 cases, then suggestions were made that cases first appeared a year before – in the spring of 1985. Certainly those first cows would have been incubating the disease for anything up to six years.

Hence from 1980 cows which carried the infection but did not yet exhibit signs of it were being processed into the food industry. This was food for human consumption, but also for domestic pets, zoo animals and poultry reared for human consumption. In 1988 the government set up a committee chaired by Sir Richard Southwood to consider, among many other issues, the risk to human health. In July of that year a ruminant feed ban was imposed which forbade cattle and sheep to be given rendered protein pellets derived from animals. Then in August sick animals were excluded from the food chain and their carcasses burnt or buried. At the end of the year it was decided to also destroy the milk from sick animals. Up to then it had been going into the general milk supply. So for eight years both the meat and milk from sick cows had been consumed by the human population and these products were also being exported abroad. But offal was omitted from this ban , also calves eaten as veal and calves brains, a so called ‘delicacy’ in French and Italian restaurants.

In the following year the report of the Southwood Committee predicted that the total number of BSE cases would be no more than 20,000, that the cattle would be the dead-end host and that the risk to humans was highly remote. Yet another committee, the Tyrrell, advised that the number of people succumbing to CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, the human form of BSE) be monitored over the next 20 years. At the end of ’89 offal: brain, spinal cord, spleen, thymus, intestines and tonsils were all banned from the food chain. This ban was particularly significant for all the cheaper products, for the offal had always gone into the slurry called Mechanically Recovered Meat (MRM) which had used up all the unattractive parts of a carcass which could not be sold across the counter. These were mashed up as fillings in sausages, pies, meat pastes, dog and cat food.

Early in the nineties it was discovered that cats could also die from spongiform encephalophaty (caught from tinned food, 55 cats in all have died) ostriches at Hanover Zoo (infected feed was the source) and that pigs easily caught the disease. Bovine offal were banned from going into these animal feeds. In 1993 experiments which showed that tissues from dead cats which had died of BSE could infect mice, showed that the assurances from the Government that the disease could not ‘jump’ species was unfounded. Last year also, two dairy farmers who had tended herds infected with BSE both died of CDJ. The government said that this was mere coincidence.

Early in 95 a girl of 16 was diagnosed as having CDJ in Wales, the youthfulness of this girl was unknown in the annals of the disease, because CDJ was always thought to need at least 15 years. incubation in humans. More evidence appeared which proved that vertical transmission of BSE, from cow to calf, was now appearing. But though farmers would call in Ministry vets to diagnose a sick cow or calf often the vets would deny that it was BSE and call the illness ‘ketosis’, which merely means a pathological condition. Yet in June 95 there was a ban on the intestines and thymus from calves under six months old entering the food chain. At last the Ministry had shown that very young animals which did not show any signs of the disease, might be infected. Oddly though, the brains among the offal were not banned. Nor was the meat, the infamous veal trade.

The number of cases of BSE is now more than eight times the number predicted by the Southwood Committee in their ‘worst case scenario’. Though the government has now admitted that calves can be a risk, they have not dared to emphasis what the real risk is. For vertical transmission of BSE to occur between cow and calf, the infecting agent (now called a prion) has to be in the blood and thus widely distributed in the animal and therefore in the meat that people eat. What is more as there are cases of cows not exhibiting signs of the disease, but their calves are born with it, we know that cows which seem healthy must be going into the food supply. Indeed they always have done. Though critics of the government have repeatedly asked that specimens be taken in slaughter houses of seemingly healthy cows to ascertain whether they carried the infectious agent, this has never been implemented. Dairy cows are culled at around six years of age, BSE has generally shown itself at around 4-5 years, but, as there are no cows alive after around six years, we do not know whether older cows might also die of the disease. The dairy cow, exploited for years for its milk, is an exhausted creature by the time it is culled, its meat goes into sausages, meat pies and burgers. In fact the burger empire could not exist without the dairy industry. This is one of the significant keys to why the government has not acted more stringently. Governments are nervous of getting into conflict with the great food empires of the world, for they are part of the international network within the multinationals which increasingly control our lives.

Thus, the people most at risk are children and pregnant women and all others who eat a high amount of cheap meat products, most of all burgers. This statement the government and the meat industry would view as alarmist, for there is no proof now that these foods could infect you with CJD. But the government do acknowledge the possibility, yet they did not bother to make CJD a notifiable disease until recently, while last year in 96 when there was at last an announcement that BSE and CJD were connected, CJD deaths are only registered after a post mortem which confirms the disease. There are many families now who claim their loved ones died of CJD but no post mortem was performed and therefore such deaths are not in the official figures. Nor have they ever kept figures of the number of healthy cows from infected herds which have gone into the food chain. It is almost as if the government refuse to look at this controversial area, for fear of what they might find, and if they do look, none of the information is ever released.

They are smug about the safety of eating red meat because CJD has a long incubation period, but if infected food was being consumed as long ago as 1980, than incubation period of fifteen to twenty years is well-nigh up. If CJD begins to rise dramatically within the population over the next few years, will we be told? Will we be warned to stop eating meat or milk. I very much doubt it.

Professor Lacey has asked why there has never been a major initiative to identify possible treatment of BSE or CJD? Why has there never been any debate or exchange of ideas between government scientists and other scientists? Why have we continued to export animals to other countries and so infected herds in Ireland, Switzerland, France, Canada, Denmark and Germany? Both in Canada and in Germany the whole herd was culled, a measure Britain has always taken over foot and mouth disease, but has refused to consider over BSE.

In my worst case scenario an epidemic of CJD in Britain would mean the end of the dairy and meat industry as we know it, the end of the burger Empires, the end of the erroneous idea that cows milk is good for you. Any responsible government should have resigned over this horrendous scandal, but the Tories are spring election, will they put through policies which will protect the public? For those policies will be fought tooth and nail by the monolithic meat and dairy industry.

Colin Spencer
Winchelsea Cottage, High Street, Winchelsea, East Sussex TN23 4EA, England
Tel/Fax +44 1797 226 378