Mad cows and Englishmen Disease panic: Beef scare takes toll immediately, while knowledge takes years.

March 28, 1996

THE DESTRUCTION of confidence in its beef is a tragedy for Britain. The European Union is attempting to impose a world ban on exports of British beef products ranging from beef to cheese to cosmetics. The Irish government is patrolling the border to prevent cattle smuggling.

Britain's $6 billion beef industry, the herd of 11 million cattle, the land that raises feed and the farmers who care for them are endangered. So are the government of Prime Minister John Major, accused anew of indecision, and the British place in Europe. The British trade imbalance can only get worse.

All this stems from a disease that British veterinarians spotted in 1985 and diagnosed as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in 1986. Cattle act strangely and then die, their brains eaten away. It resembles a disease in sheep called scrapie that was studied in the 1960s. It also resembles a rare, fatal ailment in humans called Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD), which was thought to claim only elderly victims and to be hereditary.

In 1989, the United States banned British beef imports, a ban that stands. The same year, Britain forbade the use of diseased sheep in cattle feed. British authorities officially believe that all cattle now sick were infected before 1989.

What has happened is that British physicians recently identified ten cases of a new form of CJD in relatively young people and the government announced that a link with BSE was possible. Officially, British authorities believe that the gestation period in humans is 10 years and any link occurred before the 1989 reform.

British and world panic ensued within days. The British government that announced the possibility of a link attacked the European Union for acting on it. News moves in seconds; medical proof of any link will probably take two years. The World Health Organization, which in May 1995 pronounced control policies adequate, has convened a two-day meeting of experts next week to see if it still thinks so.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has examined 2,660 specimen cattle from 43 states in the past decade and detected no BSE. The U.S. cattle industry practice of adding sickly "downer cattle" protein to cattle feed is under criticism by a Wisconsin veterinary scientist. U.S. beef cannot immediately benefit from the British export ban in Europe because the European Union bans U.S. beef, too, for using artificial growth hormones which the EU forbids.

If only knowledge could keep up with communication, there would never be panic.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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