Now Likely To Be A
Global Infection
It's official: even in countries that deny it, some cattle are likely to be harbouring BSE
Across Europe, tens of millions of people believe they have little chance of catching new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (vCJD) because their countries are officially 'BSE-free.' But scientists advising the European Commission say they have every reason to be worried. (Click on thumbnail below for a map of British beef exports.)
BSE, believed to be the cause of vCJD, is much more widespread than some countries will admit: the advisers say that Germany, Italy and Spain, officially BSE-free, are "likely to be infected". And infection "is unlikely but cannot be excluded" in six more European countries, as well as Canada, Australia and the US.
These figures have emerged from a two-year study for the Commission of the factors affecting the spread of BSE in 25 countries by independent scientists and experts in the countries concerned. They collected data on each country's import of cattle and meat and bone meal (MBM) from Britain and other BSE-infected countries, then calculated how well the importing country would have controlled any infection. To restrict BSE, cattle feed should be pressure-cooked, and should not contain MBM.
Smaller studies have already suggested a more widespread BSE epidemic (New Scientist, 3 May 1997, p 14), but this is the first official assessment. A draft has been put on the Web to collect comments from researchers and government experts.
American officials told New Scientist that they are preparing a reply. Werner Zwingmann, Germany's chief veterinary offeicer, says the assessment is based on probabilities that are "purely speculative". Brian Evans, Canada's chief veterinary officer, thinks the assessment is too harsh. A British cow imported to Canada developed BSE in 1993 and 63 others may have become cattle fodder. "We don't dispute that infection cannot be completely ruled out, but the measures Canada took at the time were appropriate," says Evans.
Germany imported 13 000 British cattle at the height of Britain's epidemic, plus 1200 tonnes of British MBM. The figures for Spain and Italy were similar. Some of this meat, including infection-bearing nervous tissue, was fed to local cattle without enough pressure-cooking to make it safe. These cows could have infected others. In all three countries, any BSE infectivity entering the system "would have been quickly amplified", the scientists conclude.
The Commission banned feeding cattle to cattle in 1994, but infection would have continued to circulate, says the assessment, through infected cattle remains contaminating feed mills, and insufficient pressure-cooking of feed. All three countries have refused Commission requests to remove high-risk tissue, such as brains and spinal cords, from cattle carcasses, insisting that their cattle are BSE-free. "We consider their BSE risk similar to countries with a low, admitted incidence of BSE, such as France," says Marcus Doherr of the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office, one of the assessment's organisers.
These countries say they have no sick cows in their herds. But Doherr says that their "passive" surveillance, which relies on farmers reporting sick animals, may entirely miss small numbers of cases. Passive monitoring detects only a third of such cases, according to more active surveillance in Britain and Switzerland, where cows not suspected of having BSE have still been tested after slaughter.
The US imported 126 cattle and 44 tonnes of MBM from Britain. Any infection would have been amplified and could still be circulating, while surveillance would not detect all cases, says the report.
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