- Britain's Agricultural Minister confirmed in parliament
last month that a calf had been born with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
(BSE) or Mad Cow Disease. The animal was born after August 1, 1996, when
extra control measures on animal feed containing mammalian meat and bone
meal had been implemented, supposed to eradicate the incidence of BSE.
- BSE is a degenerative brain disease in cattle, first
recognised in the mid-1980s, caused by the infectious prion protein. The
disease is thought to have resulted from the practice of feeding ruminant
animals with the treated remains of slaughtered animals. It is responsible
for the development of a new variant (vCJD) of the fatal brain-wasting
disorder Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease.
- Despite the potentially grave dangers posed to public
health by his confirmation, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown went on to
claim that "there is no risk to food safety as a result of this case.
The newly-established Food Standards Agency (FSA) would also be issuing
a statement to that effect later in the day, Brown said, adding that the
FSA chairman had also stated that there was "no extra risk to food
safety posed by the recent case.
- Brown's announcement continues a long-running cover-up
over BSE and its impact on the human population, dating back to the Conservative
administration of Margaret Thatcher. Ever since the emergence of BSE and
its human equivalent, the main issue for successive British governments
has been to protect the profits of the beef industry.
- To this end, scientists like Professor Richard Lacey,
who had warned of the dangers of eating BSE-contaminated beef and called
for the destruction of England's national herd, were subjected to a campaign
of vilification. BSE first became a notifiable disease in cattle in 1988
and in July of that year the ban on mammalian meat and bone meal was brought
in. In 1992, nearly 37,000 cases of BSE were recorded in the UK, yet still
the Conservative government denied any danger to human health.
- Certain limited measures were introduced which undermined
this claim, including a ban on the use of specified bovine offals in the
human food chain. Later, the "30-month rule was introduced, preventing
the use of cattle over 30 months in human food. Even so, the regulations
were ineffective and poorly enforced. The 30-month rule moreover meant
that animals with the disease but not yet showing symptoms might still
be entering the food chain.
- Only when a number of young people began to exhibit symptoms
similar to those of CJD normally found in older people, and several died
as a result, was it accepted that BSE had passed into the human food chain
with fatal consequences. The number of fatalities has increased steadily,
and to date a total of 58 mainly young people have died of the disease
in the UK. The Edinburgh-based CJD surveillance unit says that another
12 cases have been identified. Many scientists have warned that the death
toll might still not have peaked and that the final figure could be in
- When the Labour government came to power in May 1997
they had to tackle the widespread public concern in Britain and internationally
that had caused a collapse in the British beef industry. To this end, Blair
convened a public inquiry into BSE under Lord Justice Phillips. The inquiry
has yet to report. However, Labour had stipulated that the inquiry would
only consider matters up to March 1996, when the link between BSE and vCJD
was first officially recognised, and that subsequent developments"including
continued fears of the danger to public health"would not be examined.
- The Blair government also announced the establishment
of the FSA - a new agency supposedly answerable to the consumer and aimed
at restoring public confidence in the food industry.
- Brown's statement in parliament effectively exposed the
FSA's role as a rubber stamp for the government and food industry. It also
confirms that Labour intends to continue defending the agricultural industry
at the expense of public health.
- The Agriculture Minister gave two possible explanations
for the occurrence: either the calf had caught the disease through maternal
transmission, he said, or it had been fed contaminated cattle feed. The
government had extended the ban on mammalian meat and bone meal in August
1996, making it illegal to hold supplies of it on farms or in feed mills.
- In his statement, however, Brown also described maternal
transmission as being only a "theoretical possibility, despite well-documented
evidence that scrapie, a prion disease found in sheep similar to BSE, can
be passed from mother to offspring.
- More troubling, in March this year it was announced that
a 24-year-old woman with vCJD had given birth to a baby girl at the end
of 1999. The mother died in May this year and her daughter has exhibited
symptoms similar to people with vCJD.
- Although declining in numbers, there continue to be instances
of BSE in cattle, with 3,178 notified cases in 1998 and 2,254 in 1999.
Maternal transmission in cows would mean that the disease could be endemic
in the cattle population, even if at a low level.
- Professor John Collinge, an expert on CJD at the Medical
Research Council in London, was quoted in a Sunday Times article saying,
"It was something that was always on the cards. In sheep scrapie,
a similar prion disease, the disease passes from ewes to their lambs. There
is good evidence that in cattle about one in 10 infected animals transmit
the disease to a calf. The prion that causes BSE is identical to the one
found in humans with vCJD, so it is logical that there would be a risk
of vCJD jumping from mothers to children.
- See Also: <http://www.mehringbooks.co.uk/recent.htm
Human BSE: Anatomy of a health disaster Record of the Workers Inquiry
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