TCS Daily

Mad Cow Madness

By Iain Murray - March 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Since the early nineties, British scientists have been awaiting a cataclysm. They theorized that "Mad Cow Disease," bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) had crossed the barrier that seemed to exist between species and had infected humans as a disease known as vCJD. If their theory was correct, it was only a matter of time before thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Britons started dying from the disease. If ever there was anything that demonstrated the need for scientific precaution, they argued, this was it. The British taxpayer spent millions on remedial action. Even the American Red Cross decided to restrict who could give blood in a time of shortage based on the precautionary principle. Yet the entire sorry story of Mad Cow Disease seems best to demonstrate the dangers, rather than the benefits, of that principle.

For it now seems like the expected vCJD pandemic will never materialize. In the mid-late 80s, a lot of British people ate cheap meat (including brain and spinal cord tissue) from cows that had been fed meal that included other cow remains (such as ground up bone). It appears that this feeding method helped transmit BSE or "mad cow disease" within the British national herd. It was therefore almost certainly a mistake, and when this became apparent, steps were taken to prevent the practice. Initially, scientists believed that BSE and diseases like it could not pass the species barrier and infect other species, so the humans who had eaten the cheap meat were safe. Then some people started dying horribly of a human spongiform encephalopathy (a brain wasting condition), similar to an ailment called Creuzfedlt-Jakob Disease. Doctors eventually decided this was a variant of the already known disease because it had slightly different characteristics, and so it became known as vCJD. The method of transmission of this disease is still unknown.

In the early 90s, scientists decided that they did not have enough evidence to be as sure as they could be that beef was safe. Stephen Dorrell, as Health Secretary, therefore announced this to the nation. The reaction was worse than even the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) expected. Public confidence in British beef was shattered, and sales plummeted, despite the fact that feeding methods had changed. At the time I worked at the British Department of Transport. In its staff "restaurant" it became impossible to get beef for about 6 months (despite the presence of a few die-hard skeptics such as myself who continued to ask for it).

MAFF decided that drastic action was needed to restore public confidence and a program of mass slaughter began aimed at eliminating BSE from the national herd. This cost the government billions. As a colleague of mine working on British rail privatization commented, "We privatized electricity to finance tax cuts. We're privatizing Railtrack to pay for a barbecue."

But the economic disaster was not the only negative consequence. Public confidence in Government scientists was shattered too. Once the possibility of transmissable vCJD had been established, the modelers got to work. If anyone who had eaten brain-related tissue in the 80s was at risk of exposure, then potentially millions could have been exposed to a horrible brain-eating disease for which there was (and still is) no cure. This, unsurprisingly, made headlines. The basic line of thinking among the public was, "They told us we were safe, now they say we're all going to die in agony. How could they be so wrong? They're either incompetent or evil." This attitude is at the root of current British luddism about GM foods, among other things.

Yet those apocalyptic models all depended on the incubation period of the disease. The shorter the incubation period, the more people would die. As time dragged on, however, and the exponential upturn in vCJD never materialized, the models got more conservative. Now it looks as if they were just plain wrong.

The disasters for British agriculture and science all depend on that putative link between BSE and vCJD. I think it is time to take seriously other possible explanations. One convincing theory, advanced by Scottish scientist George Venters, is that vCJD doesn't actually exist, being a misdiagnosis of the original Creuzfeldt disease (see Brendan O'Neill's excellent Spiked article on this theory here).

It seems that this is one area where scientists' natural caution has cost the country dear. It can be argued that the BSE crisis contributed as much as their economic mismanagement in relation to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism that helped paint the Conservative administration as incompetent, and so it cost the governing party dear as well. Dorrell could do little. A leak that the government was covering up a potentially horrendous health risk could have been even more damaging. But what might have been done was to put the potential risk in its proper context. As long as very few people were dying, this could have been spelled out: "We don't know enough about this disease yet to say that there's a real public health risk. Very few people have died - more people die from being struck by lightning every year (or something like that). We're keeping an eye on the situation, but it would be silly to panic." Yet that wasn't the message that got out, and wasn't the message anyone tried to deliver.

What the BSE crisis perhaps best serves as is as a warning to those who accept the argument of the precautionary principle. Until we know something is safe, this principle maintains, we should act as if it is not. In BSE's case, acting as if things were not safe brought with it significant economic, social and political costs. Britain will continue to pay those costs for years to come. When we consider that the disease has killed a grand total of 122 people, we have to wonder what the real cataclysm was: the disease or the scientific reaction to it.

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