Remember Mad Cow Disease?

madcowRemember when mad cow disease was ravaging the world, causing panic and fear?  Well Britain was no stranger, according to this article from a 1990 issue of Science

“To change the whole structure of the feed industry here we want more evidence,” says Lonnie King, veterinarian and deputy administrator for veterinary services at the USDA. King concedes that the epidemiological evidence that BSE came from scrapie is “pretty compelling.” But those who worry about it infecting U.S. cattle, he says, make two unproven assumptions: that what happened in Britain to enable scrapie to jump from sheep to cattle will happen in the United States and that the scrapie agent is the same in Britain and America. He sees no reason for alarm and expects no change in U.S. policy until certain “data gaps” are plugged. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

While other countries ponder the public health implications of BSE, no country other than Britain has yet had to deal with a secondary epidemic related to the disease: public panic. In banning from human food any organs known to harbor BSE, the British government followed the advise of its scientists in trying to make an unlikely event – transmission of the scrapie agent to people – even less likely. But, instead of honestly reflecting scientific uncertainties, MAFF has always insisted that British beef is “completely safe.” Many Britons – including scientists advising MAFF – simply don’t believe that.

Daphne Barrett, a director of the London public relations company Infoplan, describes MAFF’s handling of BSE as “inept.” Barrett masterminded Perrier’s response to the benzene found in its bottled water, which “was never a risk to health…. But it was a risk to the brand.” Just so with BSE. “It may be a slight risk to human health,” says Barrett, but “it is a far greater risk to MAFF’s credibility.” She says MAFF should have responded more quickly and with more responsibility, informing people rather than nannying them.

At issue is public faith in government Scientist working with spongiform encephalopathies are disappointed, though not surprised, by the desire for certainty. “It’s difficult to explain to people that we don’t know some things,” says Savey. “If you are an optimist, you say the risks are so small they do not matter. If you are pessimist, you say we must act as if the risk were big. But it is not a scientific position.” Scrapie has existed in sheep for at least 200 years without spreading to people or worrying consumers unduly. Its leap to cattle provoke panic. That response bothers the scientists.

“Nobody worries about scrapie, so I don’t see why we should worry about BSE,” says Michel Brahic at the Pasteur Institute. He pauses. “Or maybe we should. If we worry about BSE then we should worry about scrapie. There is a lack of logic.”

 

Cherfas, Jeremy. “Mad cow disease: uncertainty rules.” Science 249.4976 (1990): 1492+.

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