Mad cow disease requires more than tough talk
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, January 3, 2004

Ralph Klein may or may not be eating beef these days, but he should certainly be eating his words. Now that a second case of BSE (mad cow disease) has been identified in North America’s highly integrated beef and dairy industry, his remark that “shooting, shovelling and shutting up,” rather than illuminating and solving the problems associated with this disease, seems particularly irresponsible. After all, look what happened in Britain, or even Walkerton.

But a politician’s got to do what a politician’s got to do, and standing up for his constituents — in this case, the largest segment of Canada’s beef industry which, with six million head of cattle, is more than all the cattle in the rest of Canada put together — comes with the territory. In any case, human food and animal feed safety is federal jurisdiction.

Of course, the British experience is instructive. At least one prominent British scientist believes “a severe conflict of interest” between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture was behind the mishandling of the BSE crisis in Britain. “They were trying to protect the cattle industry,” says Dr. Steve Dealler, a British microbiologist and BSE expert. “After a while, the Ministry of Agriculture got itself to such a point that it couldn’t go back and say we were wrong. It had to cross its fingers and hope BSE wasn’t going to infect humans.”

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a transmissible, neurodegenerative, fatal brain disease of cattle, was first identified in Britain in 1986. It may have occurred spontaneously in cattle whose carcasses then entered the cattle food chain. Carcasses of sheep with a similar disease, scrapie (first documented in Iceland during the 18th century and which arrived in Scotland in the 1940s), may also have caused it.

Dealler says the 1940s were pivotal. Post-war Britain “demanded cheap food and looked for ways to increase output from its limited amount of land.” Feeding the normally herbivorous cattle animal protein helped achieve this. Because of BSE’s long incubation period of three to five years or longer, the epidemic didn’t peak until 1992. Infection rates then decreased, but not before 181,376 cattle contracted the disease and heroic measures were implemented. However, the number of humans presenting symptoms of the new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE with an incubation period that can be a decade or longer, is increasing, from 84 (70 of whom died) in 2000 to nearly double that number today.

BSE became a reportable disease in Canada in 1990. In 1997, cattle brains and spinal cords, where the infection is most concentrated, were banned from feed to other cattle. In July 2003, other “specified risk materials” — such as skulls, eyes, ganglia, tonsils — of cattle aged 30 months or older were also banned from food for human consumption, but not from feed for other animals, such as chickens. (Under 30 months, these tissues are thought not to be infective, although a recent case in Japan suggests otherwise.)

Cows pass the disease to their calves, but BSE and vCJD are contracted mostly by ingesting infected tissue. Resistant to normal sterilization techniques, it can also be contracted through the blood supply and from infected hospital instruments. Only minute particles need be ingested; cross-contamination of animal feed is another cause. Because of this risk, the European Union introduced a total feed ban on meat and bone meal to all farm animals in 2001.

The search for detection methods and a cure continues, but long incubation periods inhibit progress.

Mad cow shows how mass food production courts mass disease production. “What turned the initial case or cases of BSE from an incident into a catastrophe was the wide and latent recycling consequent upon the practice of using meat and bone meal as an ingredient of animal feed,” is one comment of the British inquiry into its BSE crisis.

Politicians insist on respecting the science of the situation and avoiding the politics, but the worrying question remains: How many animals are incubating a disease which is infectious before it presents symptoms? And how many of those animals are already in the food chain?

Science will help minimize harm from this disease, and an informed market will make its own decisions. But where public safety is concerned, political decisions around a range of mass food production issues will also be needed, starting with mad cow. “Shooting, shovelling and shutting up” must not be one of them.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.