04 December 1997
More Mad Cow Madness
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick on the latest in the mad mad cow saga.
Further government regulations concerning the safety of British beef have
provoked the latest upsurge in public fears about the dangers of 'new
variant' Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), now widely recognised as the 'human form
of mad cow disease' (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy).
It would be difficulty to imagine a disease more appropriate to British
society in the 'nervous nineties' than nvCJD. It is characterised by a
devastating loss of physical control and mental capacities, and progresses
rapidly through dementia and total dependency to death. Though the nature
of the disease remains mysterious and the scale of risk is incalculable, it
appears to be linked to one of our most basic activities - eating - and to
one of our most traditional foods - beef. Add in suspicions of official
corruption and cover-up, a few intrepid scientific whistle-blowers and some
bold investigative journalists and the BSE/nvCJD story is set to run and
Though much evidence now supports the view that nvCJD is linked to BSE,
much more remains obscure (the cause of the disease, its source and mode of
transmission all remain matters of intense scientific dispute). While most
authorities accept the thesis, for which Stanley Prusiner is about to
receive the Nobel Prize, that CJD, BSE and a number of similar diseases are
transmitted by 'prions', others believe they may be caused by some sort of
viral agent (others still believe they are auto-immune diseases or the
result of exposure to toxic organophosphates).
While the government regulates beef, some believe that the source could
just as easily be pigs or poultry - or even vegetables nourished by
contaminated bone meal fertiliser. Some experts question whether another
mode of exposure, which does not involve the food chain - such as
'peripheral inoculation' - might explain the currently baffling pattern of
cases. It is worth noting that, though each case now receives unprecedented
publicity, there has been no sign of an upward trend of cases, which stand
at a total of 22 (3 in 1995, 10 in 1996 and 9 this year).
Ever since the government's March 1996 announcement that the 'most likely'
explanation of the first ten recognised cases of nvCJD was beef
contaminated with BSE, it has become locked into a process of interaction
with the scientists on the one hand and the public on the other. This
process, amplified through the media, has exacerbated popular anxieties -
to the detriment, not only of the farmers and the meat industry, but of
society as a whole.
At a time when wider social, economic and political forces have generated a
climate of unprecedented insecurity, health scares have had an increasing
impact on society (see Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: risk taking and the
morality of low expectation, Cassell, 1997). An intensified sense of
individuation has contributed to a growing distrust of traditional sources
of authority - including medical and scientific experts, politicians and
civil servants. In the evolution of the mad cow scare, this distrust was
reinforced by the wider unpopularity of the Tory government, the cumulative
effect of earlier health scares, outbreaks of food poisoning and the
appearance of growing divisions of opinion among scientists themselves.
The remarkable feature of the fateful statements of 22 March 1996 by health
minister Stephen Dorrell and agriculture minister Douglas Hogg - which
precipitated the public panic, the ban on beef exports and catastrophe for
farmers and butchers - was that they had no public health value whatsoever.
If people had been exposed to BSE, this must have been before the 1989 ban
on the inclusion of beef offal in animal foodstuffs and there was nothing
further that anybody could do to avoid BSE. The additional regulations
announced then - like those announced this week - were more a token display
of rigour than of real practical importance. The government was not
providing any useful information, but simply issuing an invitation to panic.
Scientific research now takes place under the glare of publicity.
Preliminary and provisional results are now transmitted directly from
specialist journals into the mainstream media (indeed they sometimes appear
first in the popular press). Established processes of peer-review,
criticism and discussion are short-circuited in the rush to publish, with
potentially dangerous long-term consequences.
Hitherto unknown scientists have become celebrities. In their increasingly
frequent media appearances, the scientists too seem to have become
influenced by the febrile climate of public opinion. Thus, in their
projections of the likely scale of the nvCJD epidemic, different members of
the government committee - the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee
(Seac) - oscillate from sober estimates ('around 200' , Professor John
Pattison, 8 June 1997, Sunday Telegraph) to prognostications of doom ('a
plague of biblical proportions', Professor John Collinge, 3 October, New
Statesman). The unpredictability of the epidemic gives these experts a free
hand to choose projections on any particular day, to suit either their own
personal inclinations or those of their audience.
New Labour government ministers, chastened by the experiences of their
predecessors, are acutely sensitive to allegations of concealing scientific
researches. In an administration distinguished by its attention to the art
of news management, they are also alert to the danger that information they
attempt to suppress will be leaked to the press, producing even greater
public impact. Thus they rush to respond to the latest research, displaying
their commitment to openness and transparency as well as to public health.
The result is a series of statements in the spirit of 22 March, with no
public health value, and actions, such as the great beef cull, of purely
symbolic significance. In this way the irrationality of the culture of fear
is intensified and the climate of anxiety about nvCJD reinforced.
Though the scientists are plagued by doubt, in the court of public opinion
the humble hamburger has been tried and convicted. When a case was reported
of a 24-year-old woman dying from nvCJD who had been a vegetarian for 11
years, the immediate response was to raise the spectre of an even longer
period of incubation of the putative infectious agent, and to point the
finger at the possibility of contaminated baby food (New Statesman, 29
August). Why baby food? There seems no better reason than to observe the
law that all health scares ultimately lead back to the threat to babies and
children, the most vulnerable members of a society that is now obsessed
with the vulnerability of individuals to malign and indeterminate threats.
Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: risk taking and the morality of low
expectation, Cassell, 1997, is available through LM Online's bookstore.
For previous articles available on LM Online about the mad cow saga, go to:
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