As ministers dither, the public panics and the rest of the world slams its doors on British beef, the debate here is: should all or part of the nation's 12 million cattle stock be slaughtered? And if so, how? For, there are not enough incinerators. Amidst all this, the British government is taking the battle abroad, defending its beef and questioning the European Union's ban on its import. But back home, just about every school and restaurant chain—McDonald's, Burger King and Wimpy's—has taken British beef off the menu. As the snide remarks go, beef tops the agenda at meetings of officials and scientists. But it is nowhere on their menu.
The story of the Mad Cow disease begins with human greed. In the desire to boost beef and milk production, farmers began tampering with the food chain by giving cattle feed mixed with sheep meat. The country's bureaucracy and the scientific establishment ganged up to dismiss certain scientists who have been warning of this danger, successfully sweeping the issue under the carpet for fear of alienating the powerful farmers and the meat processing industry lobby. Successfully, that is, till events overtook them.
Now, the government has to tackle a public which has little confidence in its rulers. And thousands of farmers and workers in the meat industry face a situation where their businesses could be wiped out. Presented with such a ripe time for invasion, other beef-producing countries are closing in to get the UK's domestic and foreign beef market.
Consequently, economists are discussing a possible £1.5 billion widening of trade gap—as exports of beef and dairy products are replaced by imports—and the consequent rise in the prices of these items. And if, as is likely, the government has to empty its coffers to compensate the farmers, all hopes of offering tax cuts in an election-eve budget may vanish into thin air. To make matters worse, it's not just beef. Scientists have warned that the ban may have to be extended to British lamb. While the crisis has hurt financial markets, with its real impact on the economy still being worked out, the political fallout for the Major government could be severe. With general elections to be held before mid-1997, some analysts say the government may not complete its full term.
The controversy has been festering since the late '80s when scientists first diagnosed bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle—a disease which weakened healthy cows, resulting in their inability to walk. The disease was diagnosed among cattle which had been given brain of sheep infected with scrapie, a similar disease, mixed with their feed. In due course, some scientists claimed that the disease could be transmitted to humans in the form of the rare Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).
All along, the British scientific community has been debating the mode of transmission of BSE from cattle to sion of BSE from cattle to humans. At one point, the ruling scientific establishment's belief was that it could be transmitted through the spinal cord and nerves. Hence, the government directed slaughterhouses to remove the spinal cord of cattle before the meat was processed for human consumption. But, as reports show, these guidelines were not strictly implemented. The infection, when it spreads to humans, causes the formation of spongy tissues in the brain, leading to death. And, there's no vaccine as yet.
Reports suggest that since 1986 an estimated 160,000 cattle on 33,000 farms have been confirmed as having the disease. And the human toll so far is around a dozen deaths. However, since the CJD contracted through consumption of infected beef can remain dormant in the human body for years, the final toll in a beef-eating nation could be anybody's guess.
The government, on its part, has done precious little to allay the fears of the people. All that Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg or other senior officials, appearing with experts and representatives of consumer organisations, have been able to say on radio and television programmes is that 'available' scientific information shows that risk from eating beef is likely to be 'small'. The statistical improbability of contracting the disease—the government and beef industry apologists say the probability is "less than that of your dying in a road accident"—has not convinced the public.
In the face of persistent questioning, the officials and experts have been retreating—saying that as more information is made available to the government, it could further amend guidelines to slaughterhouses. People were more incensed when reports came out of emergency Cabinet meetings, where a group of ministers argued that the government should not go public about the suspected link between BSE-infected meat and the new strain of CJD on the drop, Professor John Pattison, chairman of the government-appointed expert committee, said that up to 500,000 people may have been infected before the bovine offal ban in 1989 set alarm bells ringing. Not surprisingly, restaurants that do serve beef advertise that it is not from Britain.
Newspapers have also come out with exclusive stories about the sidelining of scientists who have been pointing out the link between BSE and CJD for years. In fact, some have even reported attacks on the houses of a few such scientists, including H. Narang, of Indian origin, who is now being sought after by the media. Former health minister Edwina Currie's comment that she found the Agriculture Ministry (which is responsible for the beef industry) not adequately responsive to public concerns have been seen as yet more evidence of the government's excessive concern for the farmers and the meat lobby.
Reported attempts by farmers to smuggle infected cows into the market, despite government restrictions, have not helped. Farmers who spot the disease before the vets promptly market the cows. Or in some cases, they dispose of the infected cow quickly, and retain the BSE-free certification for their herd. Corruption is not unusual either. Since a farmer pays quite a bit of money to vets regularly, it is not difficult for him to get a vet to certify whatever he wants. A government vet, Keith Meldrum, has been quoted as saying that two infected animals get into the food chain for each one that's detected.
The British scientific establishment too has come in for sharp criticism. In 1991, the state-funded Biological Sciences Research Council and the Agriculture Ministry turned down a proposal by Dr Stanley Prusiner of the University of California to study whether the cow disease could be transmitted to humans. In retrospect, this seems to have set back research by five years. The British scientific establishment's plea that its funds are meant for research in Britain (rather than the US) seems rather odd. After all, it is now argued, shouldn't the government give primacy to the best advice, no matter where it comes from.
The only ray of hope for Major is that the European Union may agree to compensate for the cattle to be slaughtered. The bill for slaughtering BSE-tainted cattle alone, over the next five years, could touch £3 billion. But, will financial compensation restore the confidence of the British public in its leadership? Perhaps not.