Mad Cows and Englishmen: The Globalisation of Disease

By Rahab S. Hawa

In February this year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that 'all countries which have imported cattle or meat and bone meal (MBM) from Western Europe and especially the UK during and since the 1980s, are at risk from the (mad cow) disease'.

Between 1986-96 and up to the present, Europe had exported MBM to more than 100 countries (some of them re-exported to third countries); and also, live cattle to some 100 countries, according to the FAO.

Mad cow disease has now gone global - no thanks to the criminal irresponsibility of the British government and the European Commission.

From the time the first BSE cases were detected in the UK, the British government had insisted that the disease was not dangerous to humans. It said that cattle would be a 'dead-end host' for the disease, meaning the disease would not affect other species.

It took the British government ten years - when the first official case of mad cow disease was identified in November 1986 until March 1996 - when it finally announced that BSE was potentially harmful to humans. According to Prof. Richard Lacey, a leading critic of the UK government's policy on BSE, 'Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher knew everything, but simply stalled for time. She deceived and lied'.

The pattern of lies and deceit began in 1987 when the British government did a study, which established that BSE is linked with the feeding of MBM to cattle.

However, nothing was done, despite scientists calling for a halt to the use of feed from rendered animals, which could pose a danger to human health.

The British government, despite its own ignorance of the disease, continued to downplay the dangers. However, in response to public outcry, it appointed the Southwood Committee to study the problem of BSE for humans in May 1988.

In June, the Southwood Committee recommended that, at least until more is known about BSE, all carcasses of affected animals should be destroyed.

This recommendation came more than three years after the first suspected case of mad cow disease in Britain and more than 18 months after the government's veterinarians had concluded that the disease was caused by feeding rendered meat and bone meal to cows.

By this time BSE had killed more than 600 cows and thousands more were infected without showing any symptoms.

In July, Britain banned the feeding of cattle with meal made from sheep and cattle remains. For the next eight years, Britain continued to export infected meat and bone meal (MBM) to Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. The European Union, which caught BSE from Britain, was still exporting it to the rest of the world until January this year.

In August, the British Agriculture Minister John McGregor orders the slaughter of cows showing acute BSE symptoms only. This was the first government action taken to control the disease. However, beef from other BSE-infected cows continued to be sold. There were no BSE testing procedures at this time.

The 'Southwood Report' (which was withheld from publication until 8 February 1989) said that 'The risk of transmission of BSE to humans appear remote.' However, it recommended that people stop buying baby food containing cattle innards. But these products continued to be exported globally.

By September, Israel and Australia had banned British beef imports; the US had done so in 1988. Up to this time, most of the British public were blissfully unaware of mad cow disease and continued to eat beef from BSE-infected cows. In November, due to pressure from abroad, Britain bans the export of cattle innards. By the end of 1989, over 480,000 BSE-infected cows had been slaughtered and processed for sausage and meat products.

On 13 May 1990, the Sunday Times carried the front-page news 'Leading Food Scientist Calls for Slaughter of Six Million Cows'. This bombshell came from Richard Lacey, who called for 'authoritative advice from medical doctors instead of all these ministers, vets and civil servants who are telling us that everything is safe'.

The British government was forced to respond to the public panic that ensued. The Agriculture Minister John Gummer, to prove that British beef was safe, poses with his daughter, both chomping on burgers (containing brain) on TV. The government was promoting beef despite the mounting evidence of danger to humans. This shameless act reflecting the government's desperation will return to haunt him in years to come. Since then, the photo has been seen round the world.

By 1992, the mad cow outbreak had reached its peak in Britain with some 37,300 cows dead. When the number of cases fell in March, 1993, the government repeats the mantra that British beef is absolutely safe.

In seven years, between the time that BSE was first identified up until 1993, the British public had seen mad cow disease grow from an obscure mystery into a disease affecting more than 120,000 known cases of cattle.

By this time, experiments had shown that BSE can be transmitted to 19 different animal species including pigs, goats, cats, dogs, hamsters, raccoons, sheep and guinea pigs. Then house cats died from beef byproducts in their pet food and zoo animals were dying from their commercial cattle feed. The government was still in denial mode.

Like the other transmissible spongy brain diseases, BSE was known for its long incubation period of up to eight years in cattle and there was no test devised to detect the disease in live animals.

Needless to say, public anxiety about eating infected meat was very real. Beef sales had fallen dramatically (by more than 25 percent by November 1995), made worse by the fear that mad cow disease might jump from cows to humans. Undeterred, the Health Minister launched the 'Beef is Safe' campaign.

Then in May 1995, the human form of the mad cow disease, vCJD broke out claiming its first death - a 19 year old, becoming the first BSE victim. BSE had crossed the species barrier from cows to humans.

Six months later, government officials were horrified to hear that the 1988 ban on the use of BSE risk products such as nerve tissue and innards for animal meal is not being strictly followed. In other words, highly contagious BSE-prone meat products were still entering the human food chain six years after the ban was imposed.

By this time, the deaths of farmers and teenagers of CJD were widely reported in the British media and more scientists were warning about the dangers of mad cow disease to human health. But they were summarily dismissed or were run down.

Professor Lacey and his colleague, Stephen Dealler were 'bogus' professors; Dr Helen Grant, a retired neuro-pathologist and expert on brain diseases was considered 'out of date'; Harash Narang, the microbiologist who developed a BSE test that can detect the disease in cattle not displaying BSE symptoms was called an 'opportunist or a lunatic'; Marja Hovi, the veterinarian who was fired after refusing to certify carcasses as BSE-free. She was described as 'a difficult woman'.

All hell broke loose when Sir Bernard Tomlinson, the country's leading neurologist, went on BBC radio and warned against eating beef burgers or meat pies.

The government's spin machine went into overdrive. The Prime Minister John Major told the House of Commons that 'there is no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans'. This was in October 1995.

The Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg reassured the British public that 'the government is receiving the best possible professional and technical advice... that which enables us to say with complete confidence that British beef is safe'.

Angela Browning, the Food Minister told reporters that the government's handling of the situation was 'ultra precautionary' and accused the media of an 'unprincipled effort to whip this up to a frenzy of public alarm where there is simply nothing there'. This was in December 1995.

On March 20, 1996, Health Minister Stephen Dorrell told a stunned House of Commons that mad cow disease was 'the most likely explanation at present' for 10 cases of CJD that have been identified in people aged under 42'. The mad cow honeymoon was over.

In response, Prof. Lacey said 'This is one of the most disgraceful episodes in this country's history and' wanted 'a full and independent inquiry into the conduct of the government and the way it has used and misused scientific advisors ... the government has been deliberately risking the health of the population for a decade. The reason it didn't take action was that it would be expensive and damaging politically particularly to the farming community who are their supporters ... we are seeing the beginning of a very large number of people acquiring the disease in the next century'.

Last October, German sociologist Kerstin Dressel, in an interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung, revealed that the British governments over the years have systematically obstructed and censored BSE research. According to her, 'The Governments more often than not simply used the scientific committees to give their political decisions the air of being scientifically based'.

The official cover-up of the disease in the 1980s extended to the intimidation of British scientists who were threatened not to reveal that Britain was breeding and exporting mad cow disease.

In an article to the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in December last year, Dr. Stephen Dealler, a British microbiologist, and one of the first scientists to warn about the dangers of BSE, said that the British government systematically suppressed and manipulated scientific research for almost 15 years to keep the truth about BSE from the public.

According to him, researchers were only allowed to analyse tissue samples from animals with government approval.

In 1987, Dr. Dealler wrote about the grave risks of beef contaminated with BSE. Immediately after the publication of his research, he was deprived of all research funding. However, with encouragement from Prof. Lacey, he began his own research.

In 1989, the Ministry of Agriculture rejected an application for funding by microbiologist Harash Narang to develop his procedure into a quick diagnosis technique for identifying BSE-infected cattle. According to him, the rejection was a government cover-up aimed at concealing the fact that large numbers of BSE-infected animals were entering the human food supply. In 1994, he lost his job when the government declared his position 'redundant'.

Prof. Lacey was accused of 'scare mongering'; his conclusions, 'a mixture of science and science fiction' and he 'was certified as mad' by Parliament.

According to authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their book Mad Cow USA, (1997), at the height of the mad cow nightmare in Europe in 1996, documents came to light revealing how the European Commission (EC) had handled the crisis.

The first time it was mentioned in a meeting in September 1990, the EU's Director-General for Agriculture Guy Legras had written 'BSE: Stop any meeting'.

An internal memo a month later, written by an official from the EC's Consumer Policy Department quoted the EU's Veterinary Committee members as saying 'We must take a cold attitude towards BSE so as not to provoke unfavourable market reactions ... This point should no longer come up as an item on the agenda ... We are going to ask the United stop publishing any more research results...this BSE affair must be minimized through disinformation. Better to say that the press has a tendency to exaggerate'.

More damming was a letter to an Italian official in 1993 (by this time BSE was appearing in Switzerland, France and Germany), who had requested an investigation into possible links between BSE and CJD. Guy Legras had replied '... all discussion of BSE inevitably causes problems in the meat market. We have already had an alarm last January after a program on German television, and it is only by dint of prudence and discretion that we have been able to avoid a panic...In order to keep the public reassured, it is essential that we ourselves do not provoke a reopening of the debate ... we need to be prudent and avoid the discussion getting into the scientific committees'.

On October 10, Legras in another letter to the German Health Minister called for Germany to muzzle its scientists who continued to argue for a ban on British beef.

He wrote: 'I find it quite unacceptable that officials of a national government should seek to undermine community law in this way, particularly on such a sensitive subject. The persons concerned have had their opportunity in the (European Union) committees to debate their opinions. The vast majority of EU experts have rejected these. I would ask you therefore to ensure that this debate is not continued, particularly in an international forum.'

In a separate letter to the German Health Minister, reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in December 2000, the EC's Commissioner for Agriculture, Rene Steichen, warned that 'any public debate on the BSE issue would be dangerous. Every new discussion has dramatic consequences for EU-wide beef consumption.'

By this time German scientists were becoming increasingly alarmed by the BSE situation.

When German veterinarians Drs. Margit Herbst and Kari Koster Losche discovered 21 cases of suspected BSE cattle on a farm in Schleswig-Holstein, they were quickly silenced. Dr. Herbst lost her job after she publicly called for a thorough investigation.

However, when scientist Dr. Arpad Somogyi began to raise questions, he could not be ignored. Dr. Somogyi served on numerous high-level advisory bodies including the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Expert Advisory Panel on Food Safety. In 1994, he spoke out, disturbed by the fact that BSE had been successfully transmitted to a wide range of test species.

'We cannot sit back and wait until more evidence comes in. To do so would be callous disregard for the health of the consumer,' he warned.

In 1996, Dr. Somogyi testified in the European Parliament that the EC had attempted to stifle scientific debate at a meeting of the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee in September 1994.

It was business as usual. In 1994, when Germany's Health Minister demanded an import ban for British beef in order to 'end this irresponsible experiment on humans', EU Ministers refused to comply.

Fast forward to January 1997; the German government passes an emergency decree to destroy all cattle from Britain, Northern Ireland and Switzerland. However in August, it was discovered that a consignment of British beef was illegally imported. Before the police could act, the beef had been processed into sausage and sold throughout Germany.

Earlier on in February, a BSE investigating committee report accuses the EC, the EU Council of Ministers and Britain of seriously mishandling the BSE crisis. The European Parliament threatened the EC with a vote of no confidence.

More than three years later, on August 1 2000, the EC's scientific committee declared Germany and France as 'probable risk countries' for BSE. By the end of the year, France, Germany and Spain had reported BSE-infected cattle.

A New Scientist report on February 10 this year says that contaminated feed exports have helped to spread BSE across the globe. Citing official British figures, it says that over 80 countries imported animal feed from Britain that was likely to be infected with mad cow disease.

The European Union also trebled exports of potentially contaminated feed during the 1990s to non-EU countries. The report said the biggest importers like Indonesia, Thailand and Russia may now have BSE.

This was made worse by the fact that these industrialized countries prevented safety measures from being taken in the GATT and WTO that would require countries to notify that they are exporting hazardous products or goods that are domestically banned.

'Southeast Asia appears to be at most risk from infected meat and bone meal exported by Britain between 1980 and 1996. Indonesia imported 600,000 tonnes; Thailand imported 185,000 tonnes; Taiwan, 45,000; and the Philippines, 20,000 tonnes during this period,' it said.

There is a further twist to the BSE scandal. On February 21, the BBC World Service aired an interview with a South Korean parliamentarian who expressed concerns that the Swiss and German governments are planning to export beef that could be BSE-infected to starvation stricken North Korea on humanitarian grounds.

Welcome to the brave new world of globalisation and trade without borders.