Mad cow casualties

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2001:

TOKYO, LONDON, PARIS–Accused of covering up the risk of mad cow disease hitting Japan, three months before it did, Japanese agriculture minister Tsutomu Takebe on Christmas Day announced the apparent forced resignations of vice minister of agriculture Hideaki Kumazawa and livestock industry department chief Takemi Nagamura.

Kumazawa and Nagamura walked the plank a week after the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi revealed that the Japanese Farm Ministry had ignored a European Union warning that Japan was vulnerable to mad cow disease. The warning was included in a 12-page report commissioned by the Farm Ministry itself in 1998, delivered on February 1, 2000. The report put the likelihood of mad cow disease afflicting Japanese cattle– and perhaps causing the invariably fatal new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans–at about 75%.

The risk was so high because the Farm Ministry allowed farmers to continue feeding cattle recycled bone meal from cattle already butchered for meat after 1996, when scientific evidence first clearly indicated that bone meal was not only the agent by which the sheep disease scrapie evolved into mad cow disease, but also showed that mad cow disease then became nv-CJD in people.

Allegedly suppressed in Japan because the Farm Ministry did not wish to hurt beef sales, the EU warning–and what became of it–was publicized elsewhere. On June 18, 2001, for instance, the Straits Times of Singapore prominently published an Agence France Presse report that the Farm Ministry was “pressuring the EU to block publication” of the findings.

The first mad cow disease case in Asia was diagnosed in Chiba prefecture, Japan, on September 22, 2001. Several more cases were identified by the end of 2001, but nv-CJD has not yet been detected.

Japanese beef prices fell 47% by September 25, and two weeks later were still down 20%, as beef consumption fell 30% and beef sales at restaurants dropped 50%, reported Agence France Presse.

The risk of contracting nv-CJD is statistically almost nil compared to the risk from bacterial contamination, high cholesterol intake, and other known hazards of beef-eating, but identification of mad cow disease among the herds of a nation usually brings an immediate drop in beef consumption. Pollsters suspect the drop results more from loss of confidence in regulation, however, than from fear of the disease itself. Cover-ups meant to protect the beef industry have previously interfered with stopping the spread of mad cow disease in Britain, France, and Germany.

Brains & spines

Britain, for example, banned feeding bone meal from cattle back to cattle in 1988, and was advised in 1990 by national chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson to ban exports of bone meal for use in cattle feed as well. Instead, Ottawa Citizen reporter Mark Kennedy revealed in June 2001, “The U.K. decided to risk being seen as the nation that gave mad cow disease to the world,” to protect beef trade profits.

At least one unnamed British meatpacker meanwhile used high-risk “mechanically recovered meat” in baby food and meat sold to school lunch programs until 1997, British officials admit–and in August 2001 the British Meat Manufacturers Association claimed to have lost a list of baby food makers that used the high-risk meat during the 1980s. “Mechnically recovered meat” is considered high-risk because it often contains spinal cord tissue.

In October 2001 the British Laboratory of the Government Chemist discovered that five years of testing to see if mad cow disease might be passed back into sheep in some form had been wasted because the researchers were testing cows’ brains instead of sheep brains. Then in December the lab found that a robot used to handle blood samples taken to detect scrapie had mixed up the samples from 350 different farms.

In France, a French senate commission reported in May 2001 that in 1994-2000, “The Agriculture Ministry constantly tried to hinder or delay precautionary measures [against mad cow disease],” exposing the nation to six years of needless risk.

Mad cow disease was first recognized in Britain in 1986. Since 1996, it has been detected in every European nation except Sweden. Nv-CJD has now killed nearly 100 people, mostly British or known consumers of British beef products, but the disease is also now appearing among other Europeans.

An ailment similar to mad cow disease, called Chronic Wasting Disease, has been identified since 1966 among deer and elk in the U.S. and Canadian Rocky Mountains. Considered very rare until circa 1998, CWD spread rapidly with the recent growth of elk ranching, for so-called canned hunting and the production of antlers and antler velvet for use in traditional Asian medicine. Saskatchewan authorities shot 7,500 captive-raised elk in late 2001 and Colorado counterparts shot 1,450 in an effort to eradicate herds with known exposure. Other elk with known exposure were killed in Kansas, Missouri, and New Mexico. CWD is also believed to be occurring in the wild. Several U.S. hunters have died from suspected nv-CJD apparently linked to eating deer and elk, but the linkage of cause and effect is still incomplete.

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