Mad Cow Disease

The announcement spooked consumers of British beef and sent shock waves through the nation's cattle industry.

Mad Cow Disease

The announcement spooked consumers of British beef and sent shock waves through the nation's cattle industry. Last week, in response to the findings of a 13-member scientific committee, the British government conceded for the first time the possibility of a link between so-called mad cow disease, which kills cattle by damaging their brains and central nervous systems, and a fatal human form of the malady. With the consumption of infected beef cited as the connection, sales of the meat plummeted in Britain and importers of British beef swiftly imposed bans. Worse still for Britain's cattle farmers, the country's entire herd of 11 million beef and dairy cows may have to be destroyed at a catastrophic cost of almost $42 billion. "This is a disaster," said Chris Wood, who keeps 85 head of cattle on his farm in northwest England. "It will have a devastating effect."

The political and economic fallout was apparent immediately: countries from South Africa and Zaire to New Zealand and Singapore joined most of Britain's European Union partners in halting imports of British beef. Canada does not import British beef, and Canadian cattle industry spokesmen said there is no threat to domestic beef supplies from mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). They noted that in 1993 the federal agriculture department destroyed more than 360 cattle which originated from British stock, after the disease appeared in one of the animals. "We took the most cautious approach possible, complete eradication, and we took a lot of heat for it," said Dennis Laycraft, executive-director of the Calgary-based Canadian Cattlemen's Association. "In hindsight, it was the right way to go."

The disease currently affects an estimated 12,250 cattle in Britain, down from almost 36,700 in 1992 when the epidemic was at its peak. It was introduced to that country's beef and dairy cows in the early 1980s through the practice of using non-edible sheep parts in livestock feed. Some of those parts, including brains, came from sheep infected with a form of the disease known as scrapie, which causes the animals to rub themselves furiously against fences, trees and other objects. The symptoms in cattle are different: in the latter stages of the disease, the animal staggers and collapses before dying.

The fact that the disease appeared to have travelled from sheep to cattle sparked a debate in Britain about the possibility that it could also be transmitted from cattle to humans. But many scientists, along with government ministers, rejected that notion because people had eaten infected sheep for hundreds of years without contracting the human form of the illness, which is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). It is an extremely rare disorder - there are as few as 25 cases a year in Canada - that can be hereditary, or it can be picked up from external sources. When symptoms first appear, the victim may seem confused or disoriented. As the disease progresses, it causes a loss of muscle control, and can lead to twitches and spasms, an inability to walk, coma and death, usually within 12 months.

Last week, the British government confirmed what many Britons had long feared - a possible link between eating infected beef and contracting CJD. The government's own Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee announced for the first time that the deaths of eight people from the disease were likely caused by eating infected beef in the late 1980s. "There remains no scientific proof that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef," British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell told the House of Commons. "But the committee has concluded that the most likely explanation at present is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE."

British officials insisted that scientists will likely have to study the disease for at least two more years before they can determine definitively whether the disease can be transmitted to humans from cattle. And that could mean a prolonged nightmare for the British cattle industry, which has already seen beef consumption drop several times over the past decade due to BSE scares. About half of Britain's schools have banned beef in student meals in the past year. Last week, normally popular steak houses were deserted and British butchers filled their display shelves with pork, chicken and other non-beef products.

At the very least, the beef industry appears to be facing one or two years of uncertainty while awaiting the results of more scientific research. At worst, government advisers could recommend destruction of the entire British herd, which would be an almost unimaginable disaster for many in the industry, particularly the 100,000 farm families who raise beef cattle for a living. "I'm very sad and frightened," said Welsh cattleman Richard Howells. "People are panicking. If they decide to slaughter all our cattle, the implications are astronomical. They can't just do away with an industry." But, by the same token, the government and its scientists can hardly risk arousing further public fears, or drawing new international sanctions.

Maclean's April 1, 1996