|3.30.96||The Logic of the 'Mad Cow' Scare||Patties Face Uncertain Future|
|3.30.96||Europeans to Help Fight Mad-Cow Disease||Record Year at McDonald's|
|3.26.96||Children and CJD||Business Costs of Mad Cow Disease|
|3.13.96||WHO Fact Sheet||Top neuropathologist: no beefburgers to his children|
|3.30.96||Wimpy lifts ban on British beef, McD's not||Who is to Blame?|
|3.30.96||How to Rescue Beef Industry|
LONDON -- Politics and food intermingle. Ask any candidate who has followed the campaign ritual through New York City, eating his way caterpillar-like through the ethnic neighborhoods. The kosher hot dog, the Irish soda bread, the cannoli, the kielbasa. Food as tribal bonding: I eat what you eat; vote for me.
Food and politics involve trust. The mayor, the statesman, the prime minister -- all are entrusted to carry out the public will out of view. The food consumed, so remote from the farm and the slaughterhouse, is accepted as safe and healthful even though we cannot see how it is prepared. That guarantee is one duty the government normally fulfills almost without thinking.
And food can become a sounding board for politics. It can become a slogan: "A chicken in every pot." An impulse to revolution: "Let them eat cake." Or a derogatory nickname for an entire tribe: the "limeys" of England, "krauts" of Germany or "frogs" of France. You are what you eat.
For generations the French called the British "les rosbifs." The mantle was worn proudly here for, as The Times of London noted in a forlorn editorial last week, centuries ago beef had become the metaphor for the emerging world power, John Bull. Lesser countries on the continent raised swine to eat and used oxen as plow animals.
In England, blessed by luxuriant green pastures, the cow was king and its flesh empowered the British navy, spread the empire and, in the vision of artists like James Gillray and William Hogarth, symbolized liberty.
"A nation of beefeaters was sturdy, handy with a knife or sword, prosperous and free," remarked the newspaper. And today: beef has become "another national institution in which the nation has no confidence."
What happened in Britain, in the space of a week, was a new phenomenon: a scare over a single product changed the eating habits of a nation and spread throughout Europe and the world. Some felt the fear of mad cow disease may have originated in vague and free-floating anxieties over unknown hormones, additives and food-processing techniques performed out of public sight.
Against this fear, the pleadings of government officials and scientists -- themselves responsible for much of that public uncertainty -- were futile. And thus the nation's trust in the food supply was undermined in a thoroughly modern way.
The scare brought Britain to loggerheads with its exasperated European partners at a summit meeting in Turin, and pushed the $6.5 billion-a-year British beef industry to the point of collapse. The lack of confidence in beef became bound up with -- and was partly caused by -- a lack of confidence in the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major, whose ministers defended the meat as safe, shouting into the wind. Simply put, few believed them.
The cause of the furor was a government announcement of a suspected link between a fatal brain disease in cattle, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, and a similar one in humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Scientists tracking the disease had turned up 10 cases of a new variant that uncharacteristically afflicted young people.
The story was not new: for six years there had been speculation about a link between the two. The story of mad cow disease was an on-again, off-again staple of the tabloids. But the problem was always on the periphery. The government denied the link, and many disregarded the reports as they dug into the traditional Sunday "joint," or roast.
Not so this time. Sales of beef plummeted 70 percent, cattle markets were deserted and the European Union imposed a ban on its export worldwide. Major blamed "hysteria" and said it was whipped up by the press and opposition politicians.
But truth was, there was not hysteria loose in the land. What there was was deep concern, a calculated decision to stop eating beef until the situation clarified, and a sudden, total lack of confidence in what the government or its scientific experts were saying.
The suspicions that had been building up for six years suddenly reached a critical mass and the result was a spontaneous boycott. Hamburger chains stopped serving British beef not because it was deemed unsafe but because people refused to eat it.
On a practical level, there was some reason for skepticism. The government said beef products currently on the market were risk-free because a 1989 law forced slaughterhouses to dispose of the bovine offal -- brains, spine and related parts -- thought to carry the infection.
But people know that laws are one thing and obeying them another. Surprise random inspections in September showed that half of the slaughterhouses were in violation of the regulations.
The problem began, many believe, when feed containing infected sheep remains was fed to cattle as a protein supplement; farmers were supposed to dispose of the infected feed, but some of them undoubtedly used up their remaining stock.
Up until 1990 the government paid a farmer only 50 percent compensation for a cow afflicted with BSE, so there was an incentive for farmers to keep the disease hidden. Last week a farmer went on trial in Dunster for 34 offenses of alterating declarations that claimed -- falsely -- that his herd was free of BSE.
The government's denials were not believed in part because many feel that its machinery of enforcement was not up to the job. The general lack of confidence in what government officials were saying applied as well to what its inspectors and enforcers were doing.
Scientific advisers were asked to quantify the risks of eating beef, or coming down with the disease from having eaten beef before 1989, and they were stumped. How were they to know if the 10 cases represented a blip from an unusual and minor disease strain or the beginnings of a massive epidemic? Some stammered inarticulately -- which was itself taken as a sign of covering up -- and others blurted out nightmare scenarios.
Few understood that when it comes to safety in food, the perception of risk is not mathematical. It's psychological. One young man who gave up beef explained his decision this way: "They say the risk of getting the disease is one in a million or about the same as winning the lottery. And that may be true. But every week I play the lottery."
A psychologist in a London suburb, who served American guests fish last Sunday instead of the traditional roast, said she thought the beef crisis crystallized "all our fears about what goes into food, about hormones and chemicals and genetically engineered tomatoes and all the other things in the environment that we can't control."
In other words, runaway science itself was on trial. It was undoubtedly a coincidence in timing, but only two weeks before the scare over mad cow disease, which is thought to have originated in the centuries-old disease in sheep called scrapie, the front pages of newspapers carried photographs of two identical sheep.
They were clones produced from a laboratory-grown cell, and occasioned a certain amount of clucking about the abominations that man is perpetrating upon nature.
With public faith shattered, the British government's response to the crisis -- adopting a partial ban on the sale of beef from older cattle -- may not be dramatic enough to restore consumer confidence. Without it, British beef, and so Britain itself, is laid low.
As the Times editorial put it:
"Other nations have had their metaphorical mascots in nature threatened. America has seen the bison leave the prairies, giant redwoods felled and the bald eagle face extinction. The Russians have seen the sturgeon, whose eggs proclaimed imperial greatness as assuredly as M. Faberge's, succumb to pollution. The French saw the vines that furnished their finest product blighted forever by phylloxera, and the Irish search for self-sufficiency has always been more urgently sought and more poignantly elusive since the potato famine.
"But none of these nations has suffered a blow, so precipitately, to its esteem as Britain this week."
March 30, 1996
Europeans Vow to Help Britain Fight Mad-Cow Disease
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
TURIN, Italy -- Seeking to defuse a dispute that threatened to drive Britain away from a united Europe, European leaders Friday promised Britain financial aid to combat mad cow disease in its livestock and reclaim its export market in beef.
The leaders of Europe gathered here Friday in a long-scheduled meeting to advance the cause of unity. But all other questions were overshadowed by the uproar over the possible risk to consumers of eating British beef. The diseased beef has been linked to a rare brain disease in humans.
British Prime Minister John Major, angry about the European Union's ban on beef exports from his country but interested in the group's financial assistance to help resolve the problem, had his first face-to-face encounter with fellow European leaders since the furor over so called "mad-cow" disease erupted.
He emerged from lengthy meetings sounding upbeat and relieved, saying that Britain had been pledged "support, without any qualification, across the board."
Other European leaders, who clearly wanted to prevent the beef dispute from spilling over into other important negotiations about the future of Europe, were also conciliatory.
Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, the host of the meeting, said the other leaders expressed "complete understanding and total solidarity" with Britain.
He said the 15-nation European Union would provide technical and financial assistance to help Britain eradicate mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and restore the public's confidence in beef, an issue he said involved not only Britain, but "the entire European Union and its beef markets."
However, no agreement was reached on the amount of aid that Britain might receive to offset the cost of culling its herds and to compensate its suddenly ailing livestock industry.
Continental leaders were especially anxious to end the dispute with Britain quickly because Britain is already in many cases less willing than some other countries to consider giving up sovereignty to a united Europe, and the beef crisis threatened to widen the gap.
As the leaders met, a separate working group including the British agriculture minister and the European agricultural commissioner was meeting in Brussels, discussing what measures Britain should take to safeguard its beef and what financial aid the European Union might provide.
It is widely expected that Britain will announce a program of culling hundreds of thousands of older cattle in each of the next several years, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Monday, all the union's farm ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss measures to end the crisis.
The cooperative spirit evident Friday could disappear if they cannot agree on specific corrective actions and the level of European compensation.
In their one-day meeting in this industrial northern Italian city Friday, the European leaders decided on a range of topics for negotiations over the coming year to deepen European integration, including proposals to require a majority vote, rather than a unanimous one, for many key policy decisions, and to work toward common defense and foreign policies.
They will also discuss ways to increase Europe's industrial competitiveness and to combat mounting unemployment.
Echoing general satisfaction with the result, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said: "This is an important day for Europe."
If some leaders had come to Turin convinced that the negotiations -- Europe's most important deliberations since the 1991 Maastricht Treaty -- would ultimately produce a two-track Europe, where some nations led by France and Germany would proceed toward unity faster than others, the group sought to dispel that fear.
"A two-speed Europe is not one of the community's aims," Dini said at a news conference.
British delegates stressed that Major had come to Turin to seek a lifiting of the ban on British beef imposed Wednesday. But the most the other leaders would agree to was to examine the measures Britain intends to take to restore its beef market and then decide what sort of assistance to provide.
Following London's unexpected disclosure last week that a neurological disease in British cattle might be linked to a similar, fatal disorder occurring in humans, the European Commission banned imports of British beef. There have been 10 recent cases of the human disorder in Britain recently, and 8 of the victims are dead.
Major's government responded to the ban by assailing what it termed hysteria in Brussels, the seat of the European Union.
For Major, the trip to Turin was a waltz throuigh a minefield. Even as the prime minister sought financial solidarity, he and his ministers insisted on their vision of Europe as a "partnership of nations," rather than a kind of United States of Europe.
Among the measures the government leaders approved for negotiation were a proposal to introduce majority voting in place of unanimous voting on crucial policy questions and measures to reduce unemployment in Europe, which at 11 percent, or 18 million people, is roughly double the level in the United States.
But several leaders, most notably the French President Jacques Chirac, emphasized that efforts to liberalize labor markets should not come at the expense of the traditional "European model" of social security.
At a news conference, Major said Britain "sees no case" for measures such as majority voting and reiterated his government's opposition to what he called "back-door" steps to bolster unaffordable social programs at the expense of European business competitiveness.
Stressing the separation of debate on the beef crisis and on other matters, Major's minister for Europe, David Davis, said: "These are two completely separate issues."
Nevertheless, some European diplomats felt Major's words rang stronger than the standing of his Conservative party back home. They suggested the embarrassed plea for solidarity with Britain created a debt that other European leaders would not hesitate to call in in the future negotiations.
"Of course the European Union will provide help," said a delegate from Germany, which backs majority voting and the defense of social spending. he added: "Maybe this will teach people in Britain that there is value in solidarity."
Kohl, however, was conciliatory, recalling at a news conference how an epidemic of swine fever earlier this decade cost German pig farmers $178 million in lost animals, of which $135 million was reimbursed with European Union funds.
Like other leaders, Dini stresed that a firm link between mad cow disease and similar disorders in humans "has not been proved, and has not been disproved either."
He accused the press of whipping up "hysteria and panic" and said that the leaders had lunched Friday on veal, "a beef meat, without worries and without preoccupations."
European Commission president Jacques Santer said a decision on the form of assistance for Britain would likely emerge from meetings in Brussels on Monday of European agricultural ministers.
An agricultural fund of roughly $5 billion is available, though Santer has said recently he sought to loosen perhaps half that amount to pay for public works projects across Europe to ease unemployment.
In any case, diplomats pointed out that Britain would stand to forfeit about 60 cents of every dollar it now receives in aid to its unprofitable farm sector as a result of payments to toward resolving the beef crisis.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) first came to the attention of the scientific community in November 1986 with the appearance in cattle of a newly-recognized form of neurological disease in the United Kingdom. Between November 1986 and May 1995 approximately 150 000 cases of this newly-recognized cattle disease were confirmed from approximately 33500 herds of cattle in the UK. Epidemiological studies in the United Kingdom at that time suggested that the source of disease was cattle feed prepared from carcasses of dead cattle, and that changes in the process of preparing cattle feed introduced in 1981-1982 may have been a risk factor. Speculation as to the cause of the appearance of the disease in the food chain of cattle has ranged from spontaneous occurrence in cattle, the carcasses of which then entered the cattle food chain; to entry into the cattle food chain from the carcasses of sheep with a similar disease.
BSE is associated with a transmissible agent, the nature of which is not yet fully understood. The agent affects the brain and spinal cord of cattle and is characterized by sponge-like changes visible with an ordinary microscope. It is a highly stable agent, resisting heating to normal cooking temperatures and even higher temperatures such as those used for sterilization, freezing, and drying. The disease is fatal for cattle within weeks to months of its onset.
By May 1995, BSE had been reported from 10 countries and areas outside the United Kingdom. In one group of countries - France, Portugal, Republic of Ireland and Switzerland - the disease occurred in native cattle, and this was thought to be in part related to importation of cattle feed from the UK. In another group - Falkland Islands, Oman Sultanate, Germany, Canada, Italy and Denmark - cases were only identified in cattle imported from the UK.
In July 1988 the UK banned the use of cattle carcasses in the preparation of cattle feed, and in 1989 the UK banned the use of brain and spinal cord - as well as tonsil, thymus, spleen and intestine - of cattle origin (known as Specified Bovine Offals or SBOs) in foods for human consumption. Cattle are continuously monitored for BSE in all affected countries, and BSE is decreasing in the UK.
BSE is one of several different forms of transmissible brain disease of animals. Others include scrapie, a disease common in sheep; a similar neurological disease in animals such as the mink, mule deer and elk; and, recently, neurological disease in household cats, the majority of which appear to have been in the United Kingdom.
Diseases in humans with sponge-like findings in brain under the microscope, and with severe and fatal neurological signs and symptoms, include kuru, a disease which appears to be transmitted by human ritual handling of bodies and brains of the dead; and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). CJD occurs in a form associated with a hereditary predisposition (approximately 10% of cases); and in a more common, sporadic form that accounts for the remaining 90%. In recent years, it has been shown that CJD can be transmitted to humans by treatment with natural human growth hormone or grafting of tissues surrounding human brain, and these means of transmission have now been controlled in the industrialized countries where these procedures were practised. Another similar human disease is Gerstmann-Straussler syndrome which appears to be familial, occurring in persons with an apparent hereditary predisposition.
The most recent WHO meeting compared the annual number of cases of CJD in France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. This comparison showed that rates were similar in all these countries (approximately 1 per million), as was the age distribution and duration of illness prior to death. Cases reported from the United Kingdom were those which were identified through routine reporting and from an intensified surveillance system for CJD-like illness which had been set up in 1990.
Conclusions of this meeting were that the epidemiological evidence in Europe did not indicate a change in the incidence of CJD that could be attributed to BSE; and that if the measures taken in the United Kingdom regarding cattle feed and SBOs for human consumption, as well as other precautionary measures at farm, slaughter and meat processing levels were being strictly implemented, the risk of BSE transmission, and therefore of possible transmission of BSE to humans, would be minimized.
During the past ten months, 10 humans in the United Kingdom have been identified with what appears to be a variant of CJD. The onset of the first case appears to have been as early as February 1994, and 8 of the 10 patients have died to date. These ten cases are all under the age of 42 years and some have had behavioural changes at the onset. All 10 cases have had a prolonged course of disease.
Results of patient interviews and medical history, genetic analysis and testing for other possible causes of this disease were reviewed by the United Kingdom Advisory Committee on Spongiform Encephalopathy which concluded that "although there is no direct evidence of a link on current data and in the absence of any credible alternative the most likely explanation at present is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the introduction of the specified bovine offal ban in 1989". On 20 March 1996 the United Kingdom officially reported the cases and conclusions of this Committee in a press conference.
In the light of the new information on the 10 human cases of variant CJD reported by the United Kingdom on 20 March 1996, a WHO meeting of international experts in neurology, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, epidemiology, veterinary science and public health is being organized at WHO Headquarters in Geneva on 2-3 April 1996.
British Medical Journal, 1996, 312(Mar 30), 795/P Brown, ibid 790-791/S M Gore, ibid 791-793/Guardian 26.3.96, p1
The President of the Royal Society, Sir Aaron Klug OM, said that it was entirely possible that BSE could infect humans, other species fed on infected material have been infected with BSE despite the barriers against prions from one species infecting another. Although the sheep form of the disease, scrapie, is known not to infect humans, it has infected cattle, causing BSE. The new variant of CJD that has emerged recently could be related to BSE. BSE is particularly difficult to study and the present state of knowledge does not allow the estimation with any real confidence of the degree of risk that the BSE epidemic poses to human health. However, scientific experiments currently under way and due to be completed within the next year or so should help to establish whether there is a connection. Several possible approaches to inhibiting or treating BSE were being actively investigated. Sir Aaron pointed out that further approaches ìcould emerge from the continuing basic research in the general area of prion diseases. Such basic research should therefore be supported fully and urgentlyî. He added that rigorous implementation of regulations to remove infectious material from the human and animal food chains should lead to a considerable lowering of the risk of exposure of humans to BSE.
McDonald's is not sure what to do with its unwanted Mcmeat as Britain's biggest fast-food restaurants wrestles with the logistical difficulties of switching to non-British beef. "They're still in the freezer," said McDonald's spokeswoman Veronica Foster. "Our first concern is to get the beef back in the restaurants."
Both McDonald's and Wimpy, the No. 1 and No. 3 burger chains in Britain, put beef back on the menu today after three days of doing burgerless business. McDonald's was frying Dutch patties at its British restaurants.
The No. 2 player, Burger King, reacted more slowly than its rivals to the crisis fueled by the government's acknowledgement that several cases of an incurable brain disease could be linked to British beef. Burger King said it will keep serving British beef until it runs out, although it plans by Saturday to be making Whoppers exclusively with beef from other European countries.
"I won't go to McDonalds any more," London cabbie Pete Hambri told a reporter on Wednesday. He went to Burger King instead.
The switchover has thrown the burger companies into a frenzy, with trucks running all over the country to pick up British burgers than won't be sold, processing plants running flat-out to make burgers from foreign beef and workers rushing to stock the restaurants with the meat from anywhere but Britain.
The flight from British beef began March 20, when the government dropped its bombshell about a potential link between mad cow disease and the fatal human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Politicians from Prime Minister John Major on down insisted British beef was safe and said they plan to keep eating it, but worldwide reaction was swift and uncompromising.
More than 20 countries banned British beef, and the European Union on Wednesday ordered Britain to stop exporting cattle, beef and beef products. The scare has affected not only beef from Britain but also from other European nations with a history of mad cow disease. Iran canceled orders for Irish beef today and last week Egypt banned all European beef.
Executives at Wimpy spent several nervous days assessing the situation, then carefully monitored customer orders last Saturday. They found up to half of their beef-eating customers had switched to chicken, fish, pork or vegetarian bean burgers.
On Sunday, Wimpy executives pulled all British beef out of their supply system. Considering all the burgers in the 271 Wimpy restaurants, plus those in the company's frozen food distribution system and manufacturing plant, untold millions of patties are being stockpiled in a freezer depot. They will likely wind up in an incinerator unless the government can assure their safety before the meat gets too old to serve. Wimpy moved quickly to buy beef in Ireland, with smaller amounts coming from Holland and France. It would not comment on whether foreign beef dealers took advantage of the situation by raising prices. Wimpy had no plans to increase the retail price and planned to swallow any short-term cost increases, Young said.
McDonald's also announced Sunday it was yanking British beef off the menus at its 660 British restaurants and switching to other sources. McDonald's was too busy trying to get beef back on the menu to discuss the logistics of the crisis Wednesday. Neither company would comment on how much the decision to stop serving British beef has cost them.
Burger King, which announced Monday it was switching to foreign beef, was cagier about how its customers responded, although it said some were still eating British burgers at its 382 British restaurants. "We've seen a doubling of chicken sales," said Burger King spokeswoman Alli Millitch. "I don't have the numbers of beef sales." She was unable to explain why Burger King would comment only on chicken sales during a crisis that threatens Britain's entire beef industry.
Outside the United States, operating income rose 9 per cent to $314.2 million, including a $16 million accounting charge, compared with $288.1 million a year ago. Sales outside America rose 20 per cent to $1.37 billion.
McDonald's reported earnings for the first quarter of $0.44 a share, excluding a $0.02 charge for the accounting change, up from $0.39.
Almost half of the decline could be put down to the cost of converting the recently-acquired Texas do-it-yourself shops into Homebase stores. And the "mad cow" disease crisis was said to have cost the group some £9 million.
Sir Michael, speaking at yesterday's annual meeting, said that the blame for the fiasco over the BSE crisis lay with the UK and not in Europe. He said: "There is a tendency in some quarters to portray the sources of the troubles in the BSE fiasco as lying abroad, particularly in the hands of our European partners. This is not where they lie. They lie at home and it is here, in the United Kingdom, where the solutions must be sought." Sir Michael said consumer confidence is the issue at the heart of the BSE scare and the UK food companies have sought to assure consumers of the quality and safety of their beef products.
Last week Unilever revealed that it had written off £15 million for the cost of wasted stock after it halted its Birds Eye frozen beefburger production line.
The Birds Eye frozen food operation stopped making beefburgers at its factory in Lowestoft, Suffolk. The 1,000 workers at the plant were moved to other production lines.
March's decision came after the Government confirmed the possibility of a link between BSE and CJD, its human equivalent.
The cost effectively wiped out the gain in profit made by the rest of its European operations during the first three months of this year.
On 23rd March the fast-food company, McDonalds, issued a statement that said it had
complete confidence in the safety of British beef but was suspending its sale because of
customer expectations. Some 50% of beef used in McDonalds’ products was British.
Observer 24.3.96, p1
THE Wimpy fast-food chain announced yesterday it is to lift its ban on British beef immediately the first good news the beleaguered cattle industry has had in weeks (Michael Hornsby writes). Max Woolfenden, the managing director, said: "We have seen a great improvement in customer confidence." Wimpy, with 272 restaurants, said it would still sell burgers made from beef imported from Holland, France and Ireland, but customers could no longer be able to choose.
McDonald's, the biggest burger chain, and Burger King said last night they had no plans to do so too.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister said he was "delighted" by the news, the first sign that government measures to allay public panic over "mad cow" disease might be starting to work.
The task of competent reassurance should not have been an overwhelming one. In normal circumstances, 13,000 old dairy cattle and around 6,000 over-age beef cattle a week would be sent for slaughter at this season. The proposed programme is more complicated than normal slaughtering procedures since carcasses will have to be boiled down in rendering plants before incineration or burial. But six weeks should have been time enough to organise the properly supervised destruction of a slightly higher weekly total.
Instead, guidance appears to have been issued to abattoirs only on Monday. The Ministry of Agriculture's detailed guidance to farmers is being sent out only today. The general circulars so far issued to the union and the farming press are obviously inadequate. The result is the opposite of that which the ministry intended.
Farmers need to know where and how to dispose of their beasts. Markets are unwilling to take these cattle until they know which abattoir they can send them to; abattoirs need to know where the carcasses are to be rendered down. The result of the failure to ensure that every link in this chain was in place before the starting date is embarrassment in the Intervention Board responsible for the cull, gloom in the Cabinet alleviated only by Wimpy's decision to put British beef back on the menu, and a new crescendo of complaint from farmers.
The farming community is not, of course, a blameless injured party, as some of the more self-righteous rumblings from the shires would suggest. Had all farmers co-operated meticulously in abandoning contaminated cattle feed and been rigorously honest about declaring suspected cases of BSE, the epidemic would have been much less severe. The Government can be faulted for failing to order the destruction of old stocks of feed: its other failures to police the rules were underlined this week by the discovery that a few cattle-feed mills are still, eight years after the ban, using sheep remains in feed. Tougher policing became essential primarily, however, because the industry ignored too many public health concerns.
The likelihood now is that the operational problems will be sorted out within a week. The political damage will be more difficult to contain. For the Government, this has been another instance of the bunglings that have been a feature of the entire BSE saga. Ministers should start now to look around the next corner. This slaughter programme is less than radical and may not be enough to satisfy the EU's veterinary committee, let alone the EU agriculture ministers whose concern is not only public health, but the collapse of their own beef markets. The Government should give serious thought to destroying animals of any age which have been sold on from herds in which cattle have died from BSE.
There is no instant solution and the public is aware of that. What people demand is certainty that the steps being taken are sufficient to eradicate BSE, and that within a foreseeable period it will be possible confidently to certify herds as BSE-free. Meanwhile there is little gain in blaming Brussels or Britain's EU partners for this crisis. The public knows better.
London Times ... 2 May 1996 ... Clive Aslet
The word "shambles" originally meant a slaughter-house. Nothing could better describe the implementation of the slaughter policy of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, supposed to begin yesterday.
As the nation contemplates the chaos amid which thousands of healthy cattle are going to their deaths, it has to be asked how much longer the ministry itself can survive. For years it has been trying to adjust itself to the modern world, in which maximising production is no longer an imperative and consumers are increasingly aware of what they are eating. But the new clothes never seemed to fit. Now the BSE scare has shown that the ministry is wearing no clothes at all.
Over the past decade, the policies established to combat "mad cow" disease have largely been right: hence the steep fall in new cases, from 1,000 a week in 1993 to 200 or so now. At Frome, in Somerset, in the heart of dairy country, an incinerator built especially to dispose of infected cattle in 1990 has been closed for 18 months. Now, plans to convert it for the burning of hospital waste have been shelved, and it is likely to reopen to help cope with the consequences of the slaughter.
The irony is not lost on local farmers. The other day I talked to one, with a herd of 400 beef cattle, who has never had a case of BSE. His cattle are raised entirely on grass and his own silage, and so reach prime condition more slowly than animals fed high-protein diets, including those that used to contain the remains of other animals. As he observed, "this is the food that the public says it wants". Now, no cow more than 30 months old can enter the food chain, so many of his best cattle will be killed for no purpose. The waste is heartbreaking.
If BSE had been eradicated entirely, we would not now be suffering humiliation by the rest of Europe. That it has not been is due to the authorities' failure to ensure that policies were enforced. Farmers were not obliged to destroy old stocks of feed; feed manufacturers were not adequately supervised to prevent cross-contamination of cattle feed with pig and poultry feed, which continued to contain animal protein until a few weeks ago.
Even before BSE, the Country Landowners' Association and others had argued that the existing ministry should be replaced by a "ministry of the countryside", which would better reflect the increasing diversity of the rural economy than one responsible solely for food production. Now, the end of the Agriculture Ministry should herald a reformulation of Britain's agricultural priorities.
For years, Britain's intensive farmers have been living on borrowed time. They have trusted that the consumer would not inquire too closely into how food is produced. Farmers do not see themselves as being at fault in this. Led by science and government policy, they have been satisfying the demand for cheap food. But certain practices would revolt the public, if they were aware of them as they are at last becoming. The new knowledge is causing consumers to search their hearts about the ethics of food.
The common agricultural policy, with its milk quotas and set-aside, has tended to encourage farmers to maintain their profits by squeezing ever more milk from dairy cows and ever greater yields from their remaining arable land. This is lunacy. Those who espouse the most readily identifiable alternative to intensive agriculture the organic movement complain that even that proportion of the CAP allocated to green causes has not been paid to them. Lobbying by the National Farmers' Union ensured that it was used to establish a series of other environmental programmes which did not challenge the interests of the union's members.
As yet, the supermarkets do not find much of a market for organic produce, although I suspect the BSE crisis will cause people to turn to organic foods. In some ways (such as its belief in homoeopathy), the organic movement is still a bit loony. Not all food that is humanely and naturally produced carries an organic label. Take Welsh lamb, for example. The first object of the new ministry should be to devise and police its own scheme, guaranteeing quality in both the product and the means of production. Consumers should know, for example, that the use of antibiotics has been kept to a minimum.
Part of this endeavour should be a system of labelling. At present, there is distrust of the premium-grade labels in supermarkets, since careful wording can bamboozle the unwary. The meat trade has not been sufficiently rigorous in maintaining the authenticity of labels such as "Scotch beef". Labelling should allow the consumer to trace the origins of food, in the manner pioneered by Safeway. There should be a government register of BSE-free herds.
Eventually, we may find that the BSE scare has been no more than that: a scare. The link between BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in young people has not been proved. It is at least conceivable that the reason a dozen or so cases of this apparently new form of the disease have been identified in Britain is that research into CJD, which is very rare, has long been here more advanced than elsewhere. Scientists do not really know if this is a completely new disease, a mutation of an old one, or one that has been around for a long time but never adequately diagnosed. If it exists in other countries, doctors might not be able to spot it, or to collate their information as efficiently as the British have.
But even a scare can threaten an industry. Oddly, it is the continentals who have fallen into a panic. In Britain, sales of beef have returned to 85 per cent of their level before the BSE announcement. In France, where no British beef is now being sold, this figure is only 75 per cent, in Germany a mere 50 per cent. This does not say much for the faith French and German consumers have in their own agriculture. Ultimately, it should represent an opportunity for Britain. We are being made to suffer grievously for the incompetence of our officials. But from the ruins we must build a system of agriculture that is acknowledged as the safest and most humane in the world.
To do this, we must first establish a new national beef herd, providing a nucleus of BSE-free breeding stock. These should be only beef animals, without calves imported from the dairy sector. Meat from old dairy cows should be sold under a different name from prime beef. None of our competitors can boast an industry of such guaranteed quality. If we act with vision now, British beef could, in time, regain its position as a world-leading industry.
The author is the Editor of Country Life.