Published in: Boz magazine, 26: 5, June.

Putting Mad Cows in Perspective

by Brian J Ford

BSE affects everyone. Living means facing risks, and we do it every day. On the basis of the present evidence, there is a thousand times greater chance of being crippled or killed on the drive to the butcher’s than the risks of brain disease contracted from the beef you bought there.

There have always been risks in eating beef, and we acccept them as part of living. There’s the saturated fat. Then there is salt traditionally served with meat, which poses problems for those with a predisposition to high blood pressure. Grill the meat and there are cancer-causing chermicals in the crust. If you don’t cook it enough, there is the risk of food poisoning (and some recent strains are peculiarly difficult to treat). Fail to chew your beef properly and you may choke. Eat too much and you are threatened with obesity; too little and anorexia looms.

The national panic came about because the government simply hid the facts. In each scientific report there was the much-quoted conclusion that ‘we have no scientific evidence of a link’, but the reports also said there were areas of concern, and that matters could yet prove to be be extremely serious. Those crucial observations were never part of the official announcements.

Doubtless the secrecy was based on a belief that - if the public were told the truth - they’d renounce beef altogether. There is little evidence for that. People have been told about salt and sugar, fat and starch, smoking tobacco and driving cars. Even after the most terrifying government health warning ever announced in the House of Commons, beef sales are at 85 per cent their normal levels. People need to know the truth.

The benefits of imported beef are fallacious. Growth hormones and antibiotics are still used in many countries, so meat we import can be worse than British beef. We need a targeted slaughter policy to rid us of BSE altogether. The thirty-month age limit simply means we are killing animals before the signs develop, and that is no answer to the problem.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a regular killer. It would be ironic of people suffered genuine distress because of a sense of fear that wasn’t justified. Worrying about a hazard can often do more damage than the problem itself.

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