Health: BSE - False alarm or calamity?

By Martin Khor

Penang Apr 10 1996-- The "Mad Cow Disease" panic enveloping the United Kingdom and Europe, and spreading across the world, could turn out to be a case of temporary hysteria based on unwarranted public anxiety. Or, it may be the beginning of a nightmare, a human health calamity almost beyond imagination.

Probably, the story will unfold somewhere between a false alarm and an apocalypse.

The truth is, nobody knows at this stage.

Is Nature taking revenge from our tampering with animals? Will thousands be affected in the UK and perish? Is imported beef and beef products safe? Can the same thing happen elsewhere?

The answers will be especially crucial for developing countries, which may be affected but most of which lack the means to monitor let alone counter the disease, either in animals or humans.

International health experts have been trying to calm the world public, but they do not sound very convincing.

On 3 April in Geneva, a WHO convened experts meeting concluded there was no "proven link" between the "Mad Cow Disease" (BSE or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) and a similarly deadly ailment in humans (CJD or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease).

At a news conference, the scientists said there would be minimal risk to people from eating beef, if strict controls were enforced on how cows were fed and sick animals destroyed, and advised against ruminants being fed with 'recycled' remnants from ruminants.

Dr Joseph Losos of Canada, representing the 30 experts, said "a link has not yet been proven" between the newly recognised CJD variant in the UK and exposure to the BSE agent, but added that the experts concluded that a tie-up between BSE and 10 British cases of the new form of CJD was "the most likely hypothesis."

It was this link between the new CJD strain and BSE, revealed by the UK Health Secretary, that ignited the panic.

Both CJD and BSE are caused by a microorganism, the prion protein, which bores into the brain and destroys nerve cells. BSE does not show symptoms until years later, but once evident it causes a rapid descent into dementia and death. The infected cows stagger, are nervous and shaky -- hence the term "mad cow." Dissection of affected cows shows a disintegrated brain disintegrated, full of holes, thus the term "spongiform."

The normal CJD symptoms in humans progress from forgetfulness and confusion to muscle wasting and incontinence within a year. But the new CJD variant's symptoms include loss of coordination, staggering and the loss of balance seen in BSE-infected cattle.

CJD normally affects only elderly people. But in the past few years, 10 young people (including teenagers) were found infected with the new CJD strain. As a result, the average age of victims has fallen from 63 to 27, while the number of Britons dying from the disease has risen from 30 in 1990 to 55 in 1995.

The numbers are presently small and, even with an increase in the future, may remain small. But the fear is of an explosive increase in CJD cases and deaths.

But BSE and CJD have a long incubation period. Cattle with BSE show symptoms only when they are adults. Humans contracting CJD from eating beef may also not show symptoms of CJD for some time and those by CJD in the late 1980s would only become ill from now to the next century. If the British consumer has been eating BSE-contaminated beef, there could be a growing CJD epidemic in the years to come.

John Pattison, chairman of the UK government's advisory committee on the disease, has said the number of CJD cases "could be as high as tens of thousands and cumulatively, of course, hundreds of thousands." He would not also deny the possibility that the numbers could be as high as those in AIDS epidemic.

Asked if the numbers could be as high as those in the Aids epidemic, he said: "Well, I can't deny that is a possibility."

For ten years, the UK government denied BSE could infect humans. Then agriculture minister John Gummer, in 1990, had his daughter pose before TV cameras eating a hamburger to make the point that "beef is safe."

Last week, the same Mr Gummer declined to eat a burger which a reporter offered to him.

"Consumers who want to avoid the risk of BSE have no choice but to cut out beef and beef products from their diet," the influential Consumers' Association warned.

For years the British government deliberately refused to accept evidence linking BSE with human infection.

A former government scientist, Harash Narang, claimed he was sacked after the government ignored evidence about possible links which he presented to a House of Commons select committee in 1990.

Another scientist, Richard Lacey, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at Leeds University, has also been warning of the BSE- CJD link for years, both within the government (where he was a member of the Agriculture Ministry's Veterinary Committee) and outside.

In a 1994 book "Hard to Swallow: A Brief History of Food", Lacey remarked that "Mad Cow Disease hangs like a satanic cloud over our British farming, even though the government and its veterinary advisers exhibit an outwardly reassuring attitude."

Lacey showed the link between scrapie in sheep, BSE in cattle and CJD in humans, all caused by the same type of infection. He also said that the number of CJD cases is much higher than suggested by official figures. Although annually there were 50-60 officially notified cases of CJD in the UK, Lacey estimated the real range at 1500-9000 because many people with dementing illness are missed.

According to him, the study of BSE overwhelmingly shows the existence of an infective agent acquired through eating. "Thus this group of agents as a whole should be considered as being acquired through eating food" and CJD is also "probably acquired from eating meat" and human consumption of cattle is the most likely source.

In his 1994 book, Lacey says that if many of the claimed 1500-9000 cases of CJD in UK annually have indeed been caused by consumption of beef products some years ago, the potential danger from BSE since 1986 becomes "disturbingly obvious" and "the high incidence of infected animals must present a phenomenal danger to man from around the turn of the century into the next."

According to Lacey there is good evidence from sheep that these types of diseases can be inherited and that "an infected mother", appearing to be healthy, could pass the infection to her offspring when in the womb, and this could be due to "the presence of the infection in the mother's blood" and if this is the case, "the idea that meat (that contains blood) from infected animals is safe to eat, as suggested by the UK government, is nonsense."

Dr Lacey's estimates of current CJD cases (up to 9000 a year in UK), the expectation that many thousands of cases (from eating contaminated beef) will progressively show up, the evidence that the infection in sheep can be passed on to offspring, and that there are also other ways of infection such as contact with infected animals: all these point to a pessimistic scenario.

It is unlikely that the ten cases of new CJD strain is only a "flash in the pan", and more likely that an epidemic in the UK is imminent.

The questions the public in other countries (especially in the South) are asking are: How big will the epidemic be? Will it spread to other countries? Can we do something to prevent it happening here?

On one level, the disease, believed to be caused by the 'prion protein', can be understood as the same ailment crossing the species barrier from sheep to cattle to humans. This is perhaps the most frightening aspect.

Domestic cats have been infected by BSE, and tests indicate the ailment can also affect other animals, including mice, pigs, monkeys, and goats.

How did the disease first spread from sheep to cows? The answer lies in the intensive rearing of animals that characterises the modern food industry.

Prof. Lacey, has analyzed how the present system of animal husbandry has given rise to diseases (including BSE) in both animals and humans.

For maximising production and profits, animals are crowded together in sheds or cages and provided with artificial feeds to boost their bulk. And the contamination of animal feed spreads infection within animals and between animal species.

Most artificial feeds are cereal based, with additions of vitamins, minerals, protein supplements and drugs. The feed compounds are produced by few companies, and widely distributed.

"This type of production is potentially very dangerous, were anything to go amiss, such as the introduction of an infectious agent," warned Lacey in 1994 in his book "Hard to Swallow". Just how dangerous it can turn out is now seen in the BSE case.

In most countries, the high protein concentrates are derived from "rendering plants" -- rather secret factories that process the inedible parts of animals, such as bones, feathers, heads, feet and intestines, and convert them into two products: fat or tallow (used for making soap, lipstick and other cosmetics) and a protein-rich material, previously known as bone meal and used as garden fertiliser.

In the late 1960s or early 1970s, the protein material (now known as concentrates) began to be added on to animal feed in a move shrouded in secrecy. And when such feed containing animal parts is consumed by the same species, it is a form of cannibalism.

In 1987, there were about 40 rendering plants in Britain, processing 1.3 million tonnes of raw material. This comprised 16% fat, 31% bones, 33% offal (non-muscular organs), 9% carcasses and 12 percent everything else.

Of this material, 45% came from cows, 21% pigs, 19% poultry and 15 percent sheep.

By 1989, when 7,000 cows were affected by BSE, a government committee concluded that its cause was the processing of the brains of sheep affected by scrapie in rendering plants and the inclusion of this material into cattle feed. In 1988 the British government banned the use of offal in feed for cattle, sheep and goats -- but not for pigs and poultry; and in 1989 a ban was imposed on cow brains, spinal cord and intestines in meat pies, burgers and sausages.

However, the number of BSE and CJD cases have been increasing, indicating there are high numbers of infected animals and people who were infected several years ago, with the disease just being manifested.

Lacey however presents more frightening facts that the disease may be more widespread.

* By 1990, various cattle organs had been excluded from the UK food chain, but animals over six months, even from infected herds, continued to be exported. This may have spread BSE to other countries.

* In 1990, zoo animals (elands, antelopes, oryx and a panda) are found suffering from a BSE-like disease.

* In 1992, the British government revealed in Parliament that in experiments, seven species of mammal (mice, goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, marmoset monkeys and hamsters) were found to be infected with BSE. Apart from hamsters, some of each of these species have gone down with BSE.

* Evidence is accruing that the disease can be passed from mother to offspring.

* The contraction of CJD of farmers who owned BSE-infected cows show that contact with live animals can lead to infection.

* The prion protein that causes BSE and CJD is extremely hardy, and cannot be destroyed even by the high temperatures in rendering plants, and can also persist in the ground for a long time.

For cat owners and lovers, Lacey has worse news. There are 7 million cats in the UK. About a million die each year, and many dead cats are disposed of through the rendering plants. In 1990, the first case of a BSE-like disease -- FSE or feline spongiform encephalopathy -- was reported in a cat called Max, presumably after eating contaminated beef. And, says Lacey, if these dead, infected cats have been treated in rendering plants, then their infectious agents will be added to the feed of animals such as pigs and also to poultry and then to humans.

Even back in 1994, Lacey predicted that the only certain way of eliminating BSE or scrapie is to "slaughter the whole infected herd or flock" and that "new animals from a source known not to be infected should be established on new territory" as the infection can persist on the ground for years.

Lacey has long been calling for a drastic review of rendering plants and animal feed practices and says that "the whole principle of recycling animal remains back to the same, or similar, species must stop. The system of feeding an animal with remains of its own species is effectively cannibalism, and it is now fully established that the brain disease, kuru, in a human tribe of New Guinea (the Fore tribe) was due just to this."

A more fundamental lesson, in Lacey's words, is that "the whole system of interdependence between the rendering plants, animal feeds and intensive rearing is unsafe."

Perhaps another major lesson is that deregulation to further the 'market', and 'profit' as a self-correcting mechanism, can have some hidden costs, and governments all too often don't act as urgently as they should, because their first priority is to protect economic interests, in this case the multi-billion dollar beef industry.