Mad Cow Disease
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PAUL MILLER: At this year’s farm trade fair in Berlin, the cattle and dairy cows drew a crowd — the stands selling pork and ham drew the customers. Germans buy 40 percent less beef these days because of fears of mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, and less sausage containing beef byproducts, a German staple. The country’s new agriculture minister, Renate Kuenast, is trying to restore public confidence, while estimating there could be 500 new cases of mad cow in Germany this year.
RENATE KUENAST, German Agriculture Minister: We need new rules for agriculture, agriculture that look at food safety first.
PAUL MILLER: Minister Kuenast’s predecessor, and the health minister, both resigned in the face of public anger about the government’s handling of mad cow. For months it assured the public there was no BSE problem in Germany, then mad cow turned up. It’s a familiar story in Europe, government assurances crumble as politicians admit there are problems.
RENATE KUENAST: We are not at the end of fighting against BSE; we are somewhere in the middle.
PAUL MILLER: The fight began in England in the late 1980s when cows acted strangely before dying and autopsies showed their brains looked like sponges. The cause was an abnormal bit of protein called a prion.
PETER SMITH, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: What happens in the disease is that protein becomes malformed, misshapen, and then there seems to be a template effect that works progressively throughout the body, transforming the shape of normal prion proteins into this abnormal form. And eventually this accumulates in the central nervous system and in the brain, leading to death.
PAUL MILLER: 180,000 head of cattle were infected overall in Britain. And by 1996, scientists discovered that BSE prions could somehow jump species to humans, causing a fatal brain disease known as new variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease or CJD.
GILLIAN TURNER, British CJD Support Network: Obviously the most logical explanation is because we eat the meat, but there is no research to actually, definitely confirm that. It’s the working hypothesis.
PAUL MILLER: An investigation into the epidemic concluded the British government had misled consumers about the extent of the risk to human health. CJD has now killed 80 people in Britain. No one is sure how many more have been infected; it can take years for the symptoms to appear. The government report last October blamed the spread of mad cow disease on ground-up bits of infected cattle, fed to herds as extra protein for growth.
FRANCIS ANTHONY, British Veterinary Association: We know now for certain that the vector for the agent which causes BSE in cattle was meat and bone meal. Meat and bone meal has been withdrawn from the food of all animals in this country.
PAUL MILLER: The bone and animal meal were banned in Britain, but exported to Europe. European countries had banned imports of British beef in 1996, but their own cattle were becoming infected. In November, families of two French CJD victims blamed British and French officials for the meal exports, and BSE and CJD in France. A magistrate is now investigating possible manslaughter charges against the officials.
OLIVIER DE PLESSIS, French CJD Victims Association: It’s incredible that they decided to use the opportunity of the common market to make Europe, the EC, a kind of rubbish place for contaminated bone meal and offal.
PAUL MILLER: Real panic set in last October with the revelation that meat from a contaminated steer might have been sold in supermarkets.
CONSUMER: I am afraid. It’s normal isn’t it?
CONSUMER: We don’t know what we buy. We just have to have confident. But we don’t know what we eat.
PAUL MILLER: By the end of last year, the number of cases of BSE on the continent had passed 1,300, including the first cases in Germany, Denmark and Italy. But some health experts say people are overreacting
DR. FRANCOIS ORTALO-MAGNE, London School of Economics: The thing which should be pointed out is the very limited scale of BSE in European countries, on the continent, relative to what we have in Great Britain. And that makes a big difference. The surprising thing maybe for politicians is that customers don’t see that difference. Whether we have seven cases in Germany or 170,000 in Great Britain, people seem to behave as if the risk were the same.
PAUL MILLER: Starting the first of the year, the European Union banned the use of animal and bone meal in feed, ordered tests for BSE on all cattle over 30 months that are brought to market, and stopped the sale of parts of cattle thought to carry the greatest risk of infection. The tests, meant to reassure the public, only made people more nervous, and the EU had to issue an appeal for calm, saying it was normal for testing to find more cases. For example, France began random tests of cattle brains last year and turned up 153 cases of BSE, or five times as many as the year before. France also slaughters entire herds when one animal is found to have BSE. Germany now plans to do the same, perhaps killing 400,000 cattle, and that has brought the government into conflict with the country’s farmers.
Taking on agribusiness is a serious matter in Germany. Die Ziet newspaper says farmers are the most firmly entrenched lobby in the country. One reflection of that is the subsidies they receive from the European Union, almost $8 billion a year. German Agriculture Minister Kuenast wants to change the entire industry with a back to nature approach that emphasizes organic farming instead of factory farms. This farm in Kuhhorst, 30 miles from Berlin, feeds its cattle only what it produces in its own fields. These kinds of farms are less than 3 percent of Germany’s agriculture. The rest of the industry feels threatened by the government’s new approach and is vowing to fight it. Throughout Europe, the entire meat processing industry is complaining of low prices, and new costs for tests and other prevention measures. Now, the World Health Organization is warning that BSE-infected meat may be in animal and bone meal that has been sold to other parts of the world.
DR. FRANCOIS ORTALO-MAGNE: If you can jump a continent, it might be North Africa, because there we do have some trade relations with them. We do exchange animals. We do exchange sperm from bulls too, for reproduction of dairy cows, so we do probably exchange some feed. So given that we have this trading relation with North Africa, maybe that’s a potential for jumping a continent.
PAUL MILLER: And some analysts are warning about the possibility of infection from cow parts that are used in gelatin or make-up.
DR. FRANCOIS ORTALO-MAGNE: Then there are all kinds of derivatives of beef which we use in food, cosmetic industry which could be also suspect, transferred to humans. For example, we don’t know yet whether people get CJD, we’re not sure whether they get it from eating meat or from contact through cuts or through… there are different ways of entry into the body. It could be going from creams or who knows.
PAUL MILLER: The risk is said to be small, but Europeans will tell you they’ve heard that before.