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The paralysis and dementia that result from Creuzfeldt Jakob Disease make it cruelly appropriate to British society in the 'nervous nineties', says Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

No backbone in beef crisis

The evolution of the crisis about the possible transmission of Creuzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) from cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ('mad cow disease') reveals some of the characteristic features of the malaise of modern Britain.

In his announcement in early December of a ban on sales of beef 'on the bone' agriculture minister Jack Cunningham made a telling admission. 'The first priority of this government', he proclaimed, 'is the protection of the consumer'.

It is now generally accepted that the relationship between society and the state should no longer be one between citizens and politicians, but one between consumers and regulators. The shift is significant. Citizens are active and independent agents, traditionally highly suspicious of state incursions into their activities. Consumers are passive and vulnerable, generally looking to some external agency to protect their interests. Citizens often act collectively, consumers are society at its most atomised; symbolically, citizens are male, consumers female.

The government's identification with the cause of the consumer allows it to act in a paternalistic and authoritarian way, protecting the humble shopper and policing the mighty producers and retailers. It also, however, reveals the weakness of government today, that it has no higher claim on the respect of the people than its capacity to regulate the marketplace. Given the inevitable difficulty of enforcing such regulations, this is also a high risk strategy.

In the past, the first priority of government was to run the country, and its ministers claimed legitimacy as representatives of the interests of the whole of society. No doubt, the agriculture minister was keen to emphasise his commitment to consumer interests because of his department's longstanding identification with the interests of the producers - the farmers and the food industry. Yet whereas ministers once attempted to stand above such sectional concerns, they are now so insecure that they take sides in disputes in which they would once have stood aloof.

The decline of governmental authority is linked to the contradictory plight of science in modern society. On the one hand, the probable identification of 'new variant' CJD (in 23 cases so far in Britain) as the result of the same infectious agent as that causing the epidemic of BSE in cattle in the late 1980s was the result of impressive laboratory studies. Though the key question of the mode of transmission of this agent from cattle to humans remains obscure, these researches have provided a major stimulus to further investigations.

On the other hand, it seems that the further they get away from their labs the more the scientists are affected by the prevailing climate of irrationality. The discourse on 'risk assessment' that emerged from the December meetings of Seac (the official spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee) and government ministers revealed the scale of this problem.

The committee heard preliminary reports of a trial in which cattle were fed 'extreme amounts of diseased brain homogenate - a good three-ounces-plus of neat BSE-positive brain gush', according to the account leaked to Emily Green of the New Statesman (12 December 1997). The researchers detected infectivity in the now notorious dorsal root ganglia (tiny knots of nerve tissue close to the spinal cord) in one cow of 36 months, but not in one of 30 months. Now, as all cattle entering the human food chain must be slaughtered before 30 months, the risk of infection being present (even in these extreme circumstances) is very low.

To be precise, the report submitted by Seac to the government estimated that in 1997 some six infected animals might get through, and in 1998 possibly three (out of around 2.2 million cattle slaughtered). The experts noted that 'in the worst year in the past the figure was many thousand times greater'. 'Using a series of pessimistic assumptions' they concluded that there was a 95 per cent chance of no cases and a five per cent chance of one case of CJD arising as a result of this exposure in 1998. This calculation - based on a single unpublished, unconfirmed, non-peer reviewed study - led to the government's December ban on beef on the bone.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, the risk of contracting nvCJD this year is literally on a par with that of being struck by lightning.

The government's grotesque overreaction in December recalled the last major mad cow panic in March 1996, when ministers first officially admitted the possibility of a link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans and tightened up food safety regulations. As I argued at the time, these measures had no public health value, as regulations had long been in place to prevent infected beef from entering the human food chain. The problem (if it turned out that beef could transmit BSE, which remains unconfirmed) was, as indicated in the December Seac report, that thousands of infected cattle had been processed between the first recognition of BSE in 1986 and the introduction of the 'specified offals' ban to prevent its transmission to humans in 1988/89.

The situation today is that it is against the law to sell beef on the bone, which might carry a microscopic amount of BSE infectivity, though we know that we were all eating BSE by the bucketful in the late 1980s - and only 23 people seem to have acquired CJD, perhaps as a result, perhaps not. If there is really any danger from dorsal root ganglia now then we must surely be all already doomed from the burgers of the past.

The problem with risk assessment is that it seems devoid of common sense. For example, microbiologist Dr Stephen Dealler, a leading promoter of the mad cow panic and now a member of Seac, has calculated how many people in Britain may have eaten more than what he reckons is a potentially infective dose of BSE. The numbers vary, according to different variables, between zero and 34.44 million (see S Dealler, Lethal Legacy: BSE - The Search for the Truth, 1996, Table 15, p282). In other words, even if BSE can be transmitted to humans in beef, it is possible according to Dealler's model, either that nobody will get it, or that more than half the population will be wiped out.

The sensible response to such high levels of uncertainty would surely be to conclude that, given the existing level of knowledge, it is impossible to make any useful projections. Yet, instead of consigning his tables to the bin, Dealler rushes to publish, driven by a vision of celebrity and headlines proclaiming 'Top Doc says 34 million might die'.

The role of Seac shows how the scientists and the government interact to amplify the insecurities of both sides - with disastrous consequences for society. When in 1996, after some years of dismissing suggestions of a link between BSE and CJD, the scientists first noted a handful of cases that raised this as a real possibility, they were understandably rattled. But, instead of calming them down and discreetly encouraging further research, ministers themselves panicked. They made dramatic public statements which did nothing to reduce risk, but had the effect of inducing mass anxiety and causing the collapse of the British beef trade. The December events revealed the same process, raised to a higher level of absurdity.

Why are government ministers so inclined to overreact to an issue like mad cow disease? The crisis emerged in the dying days of a demoralised Conservative regime, which was always on the defensive, sensitive to allegations of complacency and 'sleaze'. One manifestation of the declining solidarity of the old elite was the inevitability of bad news being leaked to an increasingly anti-Tory press. Ministers knew that if they did not make the Seac revelations public, they would soon enough appear in the media, together with allegations of a cover-up.

New Labour ministers would seem to be in a stronger position than their predecessors. Yet, they too have become victims of the cynicism about government that they have done much to encourage. They have also had to pay the price for the growing influence of non-governmental sources of authority, illustrated by the role of Seac. As a body of experts in the different scientific fields involved in BSE/CJD it provides a source of legitimacy for government policy. However, as the March 1996 debacle revealed, it may have the effect of pushing ministers into rash statements. Conflicts within Seac - calls of 'morons' and 'snotty medics' were heard emerging from the December 1997 meeting - undoubtedly contribute to the febrile climate.

The launch of the Food Standards Agency in January signals the arrival of another quango on the scene. Key figures behind the FSA have already helped to push the government further than it originally intended to go in announcing a public judicial inquiry under Lord Justice Phillips into the BSE/CJD affair. While such agencies take the pressure off the government, they also reduce its accountability - enhancing the power of appointed officials and experts over elected representatives.

'It's not the cows that are mad, it's the people' declared an exasperated Tory minister surveying the devastation of British agriculture after the events of March 1996. The evolution of the mad cow crisis confirms that the source of this madness lies, not in beef, but in the loss of nerve of the British establishment.


Carcasses in cyberspace

by Dave Chandler

Entering the butcher's shop in Otley market square, I recognised Tony Middlemiss from the photo on his website. When he finished cutting up a sheep's carcass, we went up to his flat above the shop and chatted in his computer room. This is where Middlemiss combines his two interests - butchery and the Net - in opposition to the encroachment of 'veggies' and the 'nanny state'.

His website (www. dalesnet.co.uk/middy.htm), which undercuts health scares about meat and promotes meat-eating as part of a healthy diet. He gleans most of his information from the USA, with tasty cuts from LM-online. The site is a favourite among digital carnivores; it also attracts hate-e-mail from 30-40 vegetarians each week.

Middlemiss is the sort of North Yorkshireman to whom Southerners are synonymous with lily-livered vegetarianism. 'If you hang a carcass in your shop window south of Sheffield', he insists, 'you're liable to get a brick through your window'; but in Otley 'people are much more down to Earth', with 'professional types' and even 'Guardian readers' opposed to the ban on beef on the bone.

In fact the beat-the-ban rush to buy was as evident down South as it was in Otley, where customers bought entire sirloins while muttering under their breath about the nonsense of banning meat with a 1 in 4 million health risk.

Middlemiss' beef against the ban is that 'it is taking away our freedom of choice. They should put the facts before the public and let them make up their own minds'. But the facts are as scarce as meat on the bone. 'Countries such as Israel have more CJD than Britain but no BSE', observes Middlemiss. This goes against the presumed link between BSE and CJD, but never gets mentioned because, according to Middlemiss, British writers 'are a bit like sheep' - easily worried and all headed in the same direction.

Middlemiss boasts of eating soft-boiled eggs, drinking untreated milk and never taking a day off sick. He says his doctor only knows who he is because she is a regular customer. Some customers have been in the shop to ask about black market beef on the bone, but Middlemiss told me that the fines are too heavy for him to risk it. Well he would say that, wouldn't he?


HARD TO STOMACH

by Neil Haidar

It is very confusing. In the same week that the minister for agriculture announced the beef on the bone ban, Channel 4 showed a repeat of Sophie Grigson's Meat Course, extolling the benefits in terms of both flavour and texture of cooking beef on the bone. The precipitous implementation of the ban makes even less sense almost two years after the height of the BSE panic, when we are told that British beef is now safer to eat than it has been for years.

Add the beef on the bone panic to the scares over salmonella in eggs and poultry, listeria in cheese, E.coli in cooked meat and BSE itself, and it would seem that food is now bad for our health. Even vegetarians are at risk. (The BBC recently alerted us to the dangers of re-heating leftover rice - a practice I have mysteriously survived since childhood.) I know I am not the only one to have had my fill of all this. Information, labelling and the enforcement of good hygiene in the area of food production are quite appetising, but a diet of scaremongering and prohibition is more than I can stomach.

Beef on the bone is a minority interest and is more likely to be found at the top end of the market. And it is this that makes me really mad. To gain a better understanding of how good quality meat is produced, I spent a couple of days with my local butcher. He selects his grass-fed meat on the hoof from local farms. The beasts are then transported and held in a stress-free environment before being despatched humanely in a small abattoir at the back of the shop. The carcass is then hung at a carefully monitored temperature for several weeks and butchered with great skill.

All this extra care and attention means that the product costs more, but it also tastes infinitely better. Instead of introducing a killjoy ban on beef on the bone, a far more sensible option for the secretary of state for agriculture would have been to insist that all meat is produced in this flavour-enhancing manner.

Neil Haidar is a chef


Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998
 
 

 

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