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January 17, 2001
Sydney Morning Herald, page 12
by: Lynette Dumble,
Dr Lynette J. Dumble, medical scientist and international co-ordinator of the Global Sisterhood Network, is a former senior research fellow in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne.
The world faces a pandemic of mad cow disease that may rival HIV. And argues
Lynette Dumble, the British must accept the blame for spreading the disease perhaps as far as Australia.
Australia and New Zealand have lately sought to reassure the public with a
range of precautions against mad cow disease which has spread from Britain
to more than a dozen countries in Europe in the 1990s. The message from
Canberra, like the messages from Europe over the past decade, is that the
situation is in hand. Should we be so easily reassured?
It was in 1996 that Britain announced that meat products from cattle
infected with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) were linked to a new
form of incurable human spongiform encephalopathy new variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD).
Even as that link was made public, British policies were spreading BSE
across the globe, resulting in a man-made disaster which has the potential
to put the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the shade. The human death toll is
approaching 100, with 88 of them being nvCJD fatalities in Britain.
Predictions vary on whether BSE-contaminated cattle produce will eventually
claim a thousand, tens of thousands, or even millions of human lives.
BSE emerged from a post-World War II British strategy to increase the milk
yield of dairy herds by feeding the cows protein-rich pellets made from the
meat and bones extracted from animal waste accumulated at abattoirs and
boning plants, and also from the leftovers discarded by butchers,
restaurants and knackeries. Aided by deregulation of the meat-rendering
industry in the late 1970s, the strategy transformed Britain's cattle from
BSE-free herbivores into BSE-infected carnivores. From 1985, when a mystery
disease now known as BSE emerged in Daisy, a dairy cow from Kent, the annual
number of BSE-infected cattle rose to 731 within the space of three years.
By 1989, 400 new cases were appearing each week, and by 1992, 100 new cases
appeared each day.
British authorities began reassuring national and international audiences in
1989 that mad cow disease was under control. In the same year, they also
gathered scientists from the world's major laboratories engaged in human and
animal spongiform disease research, together with a number of respected
neurovirologists, to seek advice.
The solutions put forward by the experts shaped the events which have
effectively spread mad cow disease across the globe. The experts were sworn
to secrecy, notably regarding the export of cows and contaminated feed
worldwide. One, Dr Laura Manuelidis, physician and professor of neuroscience
at Yale University, proposed that the epidemic could swiftly be brought to a
close with the immediate cull of infected herds. Britain's attitude to the
Manuelidis solution was, in her words, penny-wise, pound-foolish, and her
idea was dismissed on the grounds that compensation for the owners of the
herds was financially out of the question.
From then onwards, the global spread of mad cow disease went into full
swing. Britons were placed at risk of nvCJD when an estimated 700,000
BSE-infected cattle entered their food chain, chiefly because the animals'
slaughter age, usually three years, was below the age at which they would
show signs of BSE infection.
Next, the duplicity of the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and
Food, known as MAFF, exposed mainland Europeans to an unknown quantity of
BSE-contaminated veal among the 2 million calves transported to European
saleyards between 1990 and 1995.
MAFF sabotaged a 1990 Brussels ruling designed to prevent the spread of BSE
outside Britain when it issued civil servants with secret orders to skip the
computer vetting of calves designed to exclude BSE-infected animals.
The globalisation story gets worse. For eight years, debt-burdened Third
World countries were lured to buy attractively low-priced BSE-suspect meat
and the same protein-rich animal pellets believed responsible for Britain's
Ultimately, the dumping of BSE-implicated produce, considered unfit for sale
in Britain, will be recorded as another shameful chapter of British
imperialism. The French Minister for Agriculture, Jean Glavany, sees it
exactly in those terms, and recently commented that "morally, they should be
judged for that one day. They even allowed themselves the luxury of banning
the use of such feed [in Britain] while allowing it to be exported."
Already there are reports of nvCJD-like illnesses in South Africa, Pakistan,
and India. The United Arab Emirates has banned the importation of beef from
Pakistan because of the BSE threat. One thing is certain, as the World
Health Organisation and Professor Manuelidis have recently underlined, the
social and environmental costs of a BSE-contaminated food chain in
developing regions will far outweigh the multibillion-dollar estimates of
Europe's present BSE-related crises.
Nor did the globalisation story stop with Europe and Third World countries.
In the thirst for greater and greater market profits through hybrid strains,
more than 2,000 British cattle were exported post-1992 to the four corners
of the world, including to Australia, for breeding purposes. Cattle from
British BSE-suspect herds can be found on stud farms close to Bowral in NSW
and close to Ballarat in Victoria. To the naked eye, the Scottish longhorns
appear magnificently healthy, but the fact remains that they made their way
to Australia after 1990 when the Federal Government banned the importation
of British cattle.
That the animals arrived in Australia from Britain by way of Argentina in
1992 does not in any way alter their threat to the Australian meat industry,
and ultimately the nation's food security. Nor does it exclude Australia's
potential contribution to the globalisation of mad cow disease when the
offspring of these truly illegal immigrants are exported elsewhere for
At the dawn of 2001, the world faces an unprecedented catastrophe due to
Britain's man-made BSE disaster. Yet Canberra tells us the situation is
Supposedly, Australia farming practice has never exposed cattle to the BSE
perils of cattle-protein-enriched pellets, but some States do permit cattle
to be turned into carnivores via pellets made from the powdered remains of
chicken, kangaroo, pig, horse, poultry and fish. Until we bite the bullet to
address the perils of human interference with nature and bring about
absolute compliance with import regulations, Australians, too, risk the
myoclonic jerks of nvCJD.
This cruel disease silently eats away at the brain over years to rob humans
of their every means of communication; the ability to hear, see, and speak.
Gone, too, is the understanding of written and spoken native language, and
with it every scrap of dignity.
Tradition places women in every region of the world at the greatest risk of
nvCJD, because their kitchens and associated knife injuries are a far more
efficient means of transmitting the disease than exposure to suspect meat or
animal-based beauty creams.
Animals and humans have paid an unacceptable price for the man-made BSE
pandemic. Now it is time to end the mentality which has placed profit ahead
of public welfare and animal integrity, and which has spread the terrible
repercussions around the globe.
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