- The world faces a pandemic of mad cow disease that may
rival HIV. And the British must accept the blame for spreading the disease
- perhaps as far as Australia.
- The recent mad cow disease precautions taken by the Australian
and New Zealand authorities are in stark contrast to those of their counterparts
in Europe where the disease, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), has
spread to cattle in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy,
Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal,
Spain and Switzerland.
- It was in 1996 that Britain announced that meat products
from BSE- infected cattle were linked to a new form of incurable human
spongiform encephalopathy - new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD).
Even as that link was made public, British policies were spreading BSE
across the globe, resulting in a man-made disaster which has the potential
to put the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the shade. The human death toll is approaching
100, with 88 of them being nvCJD fatalities in Britain. Predictions vary
on whether BSE- contaminated cattle produce will eventually claim a thousand,
tens of thousands, or even millions of human lives.
- BSE emerged from a post-World War II British strategy
to increase the milk yield of dairy herds by feeding the cows protein-rich
pellets made from the meat and bones extracted from animal waste accumulated
at abattoirs and boning plants, and also from the leftovers discarded by
butchers, restaurants and knackeries. Aided by deregulation of the meat-rendering
industry in the late 1970s, the strategy transformed Britain's cattle from
BSE-free herbivores into BSE-infected carnivores. From 1985, when a mystery
disease now known as BSE emerged in Daisy, a dairy cow from Kent, the annual
number of BSE-infected cattle rose to 731 within the space of three years.
By 1989, 400 new cases appeared each week, and by 1992, 100 new cases appeared
- British authorities began reassuring national and international
audiences in 1989 that mad cow disease was under control. In the same year,
they also gathered scientists from the world's major laboratories engaged
in human and animal spongiform disease research, together with a number
of respected neurovirologists, to seek advice.
- The solutions put forward by the experts shaped the events
which have effectively spread mad cow disease across the globe. The experts
were sworn to secrecy, notably regarding the export of cows and contaminated
feed worldwide. One, Dr Laura Manuelidis, physician and professor of neuroscience
at Yale University, proposed that the epidemic could swiftly be brought
to a close with the immediate cull of infected herds. Britain's attitude
to the Manuelidis solution was, in her words, penny-wise, pound-foolish,
and her idea was dismissed on the grounds that compensation for the owners
of the herds was financially out of the question.
- From then onwards, the global spread of mad cow disease
went into full swing. Britons were placed at risk of nvCJD when an estimated
700,000 BSE-infected cattle entered their food chain, chiefly because the
animals' slaughter age, usually three years, was below the age at which
they would show signs of BSE infection.
- Next, the duplicity of the British Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food, known as MAFF, exposed mainland Europeans to an unknown
quantity of BSE-contaminated veal among the 2 million calves transported
to European saleyards between 1990 and 1995.
- MAFF sabotaged a 1990 Brussels ruling designed to prevent
the spread of BSE outside Britain when it issued civil servants with secret
orders to skip the computer vetting of calves designed to exclude BSE-infected
animals. The globalisation story gets worse. For eight years, debt-burdened
Third World countries were lured to buy attractively low-priced BSE-suspect
meat and the same animal protein-enriched pellets believed responsible
for Britain's BSE problems. Ultimately, the dumping of BSE-implicated produce,
considered unfit for sale in Britain, will be recorded as another shameful
chapter of British imperialism. The French Minister for Agriculture, Jean
Glavany, sees it exactly in those terms, and recently commented that "morally,
they should be judged for that one day. They even allowed themselves the
luxury of banning the use of such feed [in Britain] while allowing it to
be exported." Already there are reports of nvCJD-like illnesses in
South Africa, Pakistan, and India. The United Arab Emirates has banned
the importation of beef from Pakistan because of the BSE threat. One thing
is certain, as the World Health Organisation and Professor Manuelidis have
recently underlined, the social and environmental costs of a BSE-contaminated
food chain in developing regions will far outweigh the multibillion-dollar
estimates of Europe's present BSE-related crises.
- Nor did the globalisation story stop with Europe and
Third World countries. In the thirst for greater and greater market profits
through hybrid strains, more than 2,000 British cattle were exported post-
1992 to the four corners of the world, including to Australia, for breeding
purposes. Cattle from British BSE-suspect herds can be found on stud farms
close to Bowral in NSW and close to Ballarat in Victoria. To the naked
eye, the Scottish longhorns appear magnificently healthy, but the fact
remains that they made their way to Australia after 1990 when the Federal
Government banned the importation of British cattle. That the animals
arrived in Australia from Britain by way of Argentina in 1992 does not
in any way alter their threat to the Australian meat industry, and ultimately
the nation's food security. Nor does it exclude Australia's potential contribution
to the globalisation of mad cow disease when the offspring of these truly
illegal immigrants are exported elsewhere for breeding.
- At the dawn of 2001, the world faces an unprecedented
catastrophe due to Britain's man-made BSE disaster. The message from Canberra,
like the messages from Europe over the past decade, is that the situation
is in hand. Supposedly, Australia farming practice has never exposed cattle
to the BSE perils of cattle protein-enriched pellets, but some States do
permit cattle to be turned into carnivores via pellets made from the powdered
remains of chicken, kangaroo, pig, horse, poultry and fish. Until we bite
the bullet to address the perils of human interference with nature and
bring about absolute compliance with import regulations, Australians too
risk the myoclonic jerks of nvCJD.
- This cruel disease silently eats away at the brain over
years to rob humans of their every means of communication; the ability
to hear, see, and speak. Gone, too, is the understanding of written and
spoken native language, and with it every scrap of dignity. Tradition places
women in every region of the world at the greatest risk of nvCJD, because
their kitchens and associated knife injuries are a far more efficient means
of transmitting the disease than exposure to suspect meat or animal-based
- Animals and humans have paid an unacceptable price for
the man- made BSE pandemic. Now it is time to end the mentality which has
placed profit ahead of public welfare and animal integrity, and which has
spread the terrible repercussions around the globe.
- Dr. Lynette J. Dumble, medical scientist and international
co-ordinator of the Global Sisterhood Network, is a former senior research
fellow in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne.
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