Mad cow disease panic hits beef-eaters

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1996:

LONDON––British health secretary
Stephen Dorrell touched off global panic on
March 20, telling the House of Commons that
an advisory scientific committee had advised
him that consumption of cattle afflicted with
bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) a
decade or more ago was “the most likely
explanation” of the origin of a seemingly new
variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Both
diseases cause the formation of sponge-like
holes in the brain.
Within days British government officials
seriously discussed the possible costs and
consequences of slaughtering the entire national
herd of 11 million cattle, in a gamble that
this would facilitate the recovery of the British
beef industry rather than its demise.
BSE, also known as “mad cow disease,”
has killed more than 160,000 cattle in
Britain since 1985––some directly, most in
government-ordered slaughters intended to
keep BSE from spreading. Over the same
time, British beef sales have fallen 12%; 40%
of Britons say they have cut down on meat
consumption; 11% say they don’t eat red
meat; and 4.3% are now vegans.

The symptoms of BSE––and
CJD––resemble those of rabies. Previously
considered a rare disorder of age, irreversible,
inevitably fatal, but afflicting literally just one
person in a million, CJD hit 55 Britons in
1994, twice as many as in 1992, and an
apparent new, slower-acting form of the disease
has hit 10 persons under 42 years of age
within the past two years, including several
teenagers. While the average age of past victims
was 63, and the average duration of suffering
was six months, the average age of
these victims is 27 years, six months, with 13
months of illness preceding death. Eight victims
have now died; two are reportedly near
death. One victim, Peter Hall, a 20-year-old
student, had reportedly become a vegetarian.
The global panic was ironic considering
that according to U.S. National Center
for Health Statistics, 70% of all deaths in the
U.S. are from causes medically associated with
meat-eating, including heart disease (33%)
and strokes (24%), as well as stroke, diabetes,
arterial disease, liver disease, and kidney disease.
In addition, a 12-year study of 11,000
Britons published in the June 25, 1994 edition
of the British Medical Journal established that
meat-eaters die of cancer 40% more often than
vegetarians, while a 1993 study published in
Neuroepidemiology found that meat-eaters are
twice as likely as vegetarians to develop senile
In all the human cases, the exposure
to BSE is believed to have come before 1989,
when Britain banned the inclusion of nerve
remains from sheep and cattle in feed products,
along with the sale of brain and spinal
tissues for human consumption.
Dorrell’s announcement to the
House of Commons was qualified by the
words that there is as yet “no scientific proof.”
Similar caution came from Dr.
Lindsay Martinez, head of the World Health
Organization’s division of emerging diseases.
“The risk doesn’t apply to beef in the sense of
muscular tissue,” she said on March 22 in
Geneva, Switzerland. “The risk was associated
with other tissues, particularly the brain
and the spinal cord. Those tissues aren’t used
any more. They have been eliminated from
the food chain. We may still see more cases in
the future,” she added, “so there may still be
other individuals who are unfortunately in the
incubation period and will go on to develop
the disease. But that is from earlier exposure.”
Some independent experts, however,
predicted 5,000 to 15,000 people might
eventually be afflicted, and pointed toward
similarities between the emergence of CJD and
the emergence of AIDS in 1980-1981.
Banned in France
Despite the lack of scientific confirmation,
France almost immediately banned all
imports of live cattle and beef products from
Britain. Threatening to complain to the
European Commission, governors of the 15-
nation European Union, British officials
claimed the action came with insufficient
notice, and was therefore illegal.
Previously, the EC had agreed with
Britain that unilateral bans on British beef
imposed by five German states in February
were illegal, and ordered that they be lifted.
The EC continued to back the British claim
that cattle born after June 1993 were free of
BSE, even after a cow born in September
1993 contracted the disease.
British veterinary officials briefed
EC officials on BSE and CJD for six hours on
March 21, preparing for a conference of veterinary
experts the next day. Simultaneously,
however, Austria, Belgium, Finland,
Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, Portugal,
and Sweden joined France in barring
imports of British cattle and byproducts. Italy
followed a day after. EC president Jacques
Santer then called the actions “a completely
normal consequence of the revelations which
have been made in Britain.”
By March 23, 11 nations banned
imports of British cattle and byproducts,
including New Zealand, South Africa,
Singapore, Egypt, and Cyprus, where a
woman died of CJD last June. Similar bans
have already been in effect in Australia since
1988, the U.S. since 1989, and Russia,
Switzerland, and Qatar since 1990, with a ban
on the import of British bovine genetic material
in effect in New Zealand since 1989.
Earlier bans imposed by Austria, Germany,
and Italy were later lifted.
Seemingly well-positioned to grab
some of the vacated British beef market share,
U.S. ad New Zealand producer groups issued
statements disclaiming interest in exploiting
other producers’ misfortune, but Ireland
advertised itself as a source of BSE-free beef.
However, Ireland, Denmark, France, Oman,
Portugal, and Switzerland have all had isolated
BSE outbreaks.
The BSE/CJD hypothesis has been
voiced by various authorities since March
1993, when it was tentatively suggested in
The Lancet, a leading British medical journal.
Asked for comment by ANIMAL PEOPLE,
after the BSE/CJD hypothesis was advanced
by Farm Sanctuary, the American Veterinary
Medical Association issued a rebuttal, while
Franklin Loew, then dean of the Tufts School
of Veterinary Medicine and now dean of the
Cornell University veterinary program, said,
“It bears watching.”
BSE is believed to be transmitted by
prions, described by Spongiform Encephalopathy
Advisory Committee member Mike
Painter as “a small glycoprotein devoid of
nucleic acid, which can somehow invoke the
production of a special protein in the central
nervous systems of susceptible individuals.”
Key to the BSE/CJD hypothesis is
that the prions causing the two diseases might
be ingested with animal remains, and might
then mutate from the BSE form to the CJD
form. A precedent would be the apparent evolution
of the sheep disease scrapie, also transmitted
by prions, into BSE, via bone meal
rendered into calcium supplements for cattle.
These prions, according to Painter, are “resistant
to all the usual measures” of neutralizing
pathogens, “including hypochlorite, normal
cooking temperatures, ultraviolet light, and
weak acids.”
As the AVMA rebuttal explained,
“A change in the chemical process of rendering
during the 1970s may have permitted a
prion transfer from sheep to cattle “in circumstances
that somehow broke a species barrier
that apparently had resisted less severe natural
challenges for more than 200 years.”
A little-studied feline form of BSE
appeared in 1990. Also reportedly afflicted at
times have been mink, cheetahs, pigs, mice,
a variety of ungulates (deer), and ostriches,
the only known non-mammalian victims.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.