Published in: London Evening Standard: 7, 21 March 1996.

Ignoring Daisy’s case was the first big BSE mistake

by Brian J Ford

Eating is a risky business. You may choke on an olive, contract cancer from celery or coronaries from chips. Eat too much and you are threatened with obesity; too little and anorexia looms. Driving home from the restaurant may prove to be the most hazardous activity of all. Suddenly, beef is back in the news. Few scientists are surprised to learn that there is a new strain of CJD (Creudzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human equivalent of mad cow disease). There isn’t any firm evidence to confirm that this new form arose from cattle, though it’s a reasonable guess it might.

The most famous victim of BSE was Daisy, a black and white Friesian suckler cow aged six years. She is the unfortunate beast who falls about so dramatically in that early video of mad cow disease which regularly re-plays on TV. You can see her trying to rub her head with a hoof; you can see she can hardly walk. BSE is a dramatic disease. It is highly photogenic. It damages the brain. The situation is a classical case, bound to attract maximum attention. The government are the target for attack on all sides. They should have known better. They should have done more. We should never have believed them ... yet how often do we stop to reflect on the impossible situation a government faces when there is a new threat like this?

The way of politics is to set down principles in black and white: “Is the Minister aware? Yes or no?” - we hear it every day on the Today programme, watch it each night in parliamentary reports. Admitting that an opinion may have been wrong, or having the grace to change your mind, can be a resigning matter in parliament. Scientific issues cannot be measured in terms like those. In BSE the unknowns are intriguing, and the science remains vague. You often hear of the ‘virus’ of mad cow disease. I have news for you: there isn’t one. The cause of BSE is still a mystery. Viruses contain DNA or RNA, and the agent of BSE contains neither. It survives boiling. It is not even attacked by disinfectants, and you need to heat it in highly corrosive solutions to inactivate it.

In sections of tissue under the microscope you can see fine threads called prions. We do not know what they are. Indeed, although it’s comforting to assume that the prion causes the illness, we don’t even know that. Maybe prions form as a result of the disease. They could be a symptom, and not the cause. There are many such diseases. The first to be written about was scrapie (so called because sheep scrape against walls and fences as they become ill). It turns up as far back as 1759, accurately described by a German vet named Leopold. Nothing new there, then. Kuru is a similar human disease first described in 1957 among the cannibals living in the eastern highlands of Papua/New Guinea. It has died out with cannibalism.

Then came Daisy in 1987. What was the government’s response? First, they did nothing. They even passed word round that BSE was not to be referred to in the same context as scrapie, in case people got the wrong idea - and then they made a crucial error. They should have offered a premium price for farmers who found BSE in their herds. They didn’t. In consequence, every farmer with a suspect cow was losing money when the slaughterman arrived. Cows in the early stages were quickly sold, which soon spread BSE right across the country.

In most infections, animals manifest the disease throughout the body. Evidence suggested that BSE might be confined to the central nervous system, so the government made slaughterhouses remove the main nerves from infected carcases, and stain them so that could not be used in food.

This is the era of market forces, and dyes cost money. So does the time to do the work, and experienced slaughterhouse staff. In the real world, cheap labour is often used, so there is nobody around to ensure the task is done properly. The removal of offal is often hastily done, to save time. And I am not aware of any mechanism for ensuring that none of the condemned by-products ended up in cheap sausages and pies. Indeed, I cannot even imagine how such a system could be made to work in an era hungry for money.

One of the reasons why most scientists did not believe there was a link between BSE and people is because of the comparison with scrapie. There is about one case of CJD in a million people every year, give or take a few. The important point is that this is the rate in countries (like ours) where scrapie has been found for centuries, and is exactly the same in others (like Australia) where the disease is absent. That alone tends to make one conclude that at least one form of spongiform encephalopathy is not transmitted to humans.

What can government learn from all this? They could start by recounting the reality. Several major official reports have advised against saturated fat - so sales of fatty foods go higher by the minute. We have been told to cut back on salt, since when sales of crisps and other salty products have mushroomed in schools and are rarely missing from the lunch-box. There are several known risks from hamburgers, including the problems posed by the fat and new strains of food poisoning which are difficult to treat. Those risks are far greater than those from BSE. The public have always ignored authoritarian advice from official sources; British people do not like to be bossed.

If there is any single lesson, it is that people often do the opposite of what they have been told. The greatest problem for farmers is that the government advised everyone beef was bound to be safe - had they warned against it, I dare say sales would have doubled in a month.

People like facts. They suspect official propaganda. Just as well-known as the sight of poor Daisy staggering in the farm-yard is the propaganda clip of John Selwyn Gummer, stuffing a hamburger into his daughter’s mouth. How odd that one knows the name of the cow, and not that of the little girl. I pray it stays that way.

Brian J Ford has written several books on food, and presented Food for Thought on Channel Four TV.

See also: BSE introduction and a note on BSE and kuru.