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Europe Monday, 12 March, 2001, 16:44 GMT
Solidarity: Mad cows and an Englishman
Mad cows and an Englishman - the truth about BSE?
'Mad cow disease' has created Europe's biggest public health challenge for half a century. We don't really understand BSE or the human equivalent. Could we have been looking for the answers in the wrong place? This is the story of the British farmer who thinks we have. By Edward Stourton.

Mark Purdey has taken on the government, big business and the scientific establishment - and some people are beginning to listen to what he has to say. He suggests that the key lies in what we have done to the world around us.

His struggle is the story of a broken promise. The EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights pledges protection for the consumer and the environment, as part of its commitment to solidarity among Europe's people.

From farmer to self-taught scientist

In 1984 an unwelcome visitor arrived at the gates of Mark Purdey's organic farm in Somerset.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary odyssey which has transformed him from an obscure farmer to a self-taught scientist and passionate campaigner, and made him a central player in what must surely rank as the biggest public health crisis in Europe for at least half a century.


The Phillips Inquiry into BSE confirmed that the pesticides could make animals more susceptible to the disease. Not for the first time, Mark Purdey had made a connection that the official scientists had missed.

Edward Stourton
The man from the Ministry had come with an order for the treatment of Warble Fly - a parasite which lays its eggs under the skin of cattle. Like all beef and dairy farmers in the area, Mark Purdey was told he had to use an organophosphate pesticide on his livestock to eradicate the infestation.

But he fought the order in court - and he won. When BSE was identified two years later Mark Purdey noticed that the areas where the disease was emerging more or less correlated with those where the organophosphates had been used against Warble Fly. His conclusion that the pesticide caused BSE turned out to be mistaken.

What the scientists missed

Mark Purdey
Mark Purdey
But nearly twenty years later the Phillips Inquiry into BSE confirmed that it could make animals more susceptible to the disease. Not for the first time, Mark Purdey had made a connection that the official scientists had missed.

Live chat Sunday 2005 GMT:

Orthodox opinion on BSE and its human cousin CJD has focused on the food chain; cows, the argument runs, got BSE by eating feed made from sheep infected with scrapie, and humans get CJD by eating BSE infected beef.

But Mark Purdey believes that both BSE and CJD are caused by a much more complex mix of different causes.


A society needs extremists. They need obsessive individuals who can really get to the root of something.

Mark Purdey
And he thinks the key lies in the environment around us - an elusive factor X which triggers the disease. If he is right we need to rethink everything we have done to fight the spread of mad cow disease and its human equivalent.

The meat and bone meal bans, the export bans on British beef, the slaughter of tens of thousands of cattle, the expenditure of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money - all may have been in vain. And the question of whether or not to eat beef may turn out to be the least of our worries.

A long and lonely battle

Mark Purdey's battle has been long and lonely - and he's paid a price in his private life. But he makes no apology for being obsessive. "A society needs extremists," he says, "they need obsessive individuals who can really get to the root of something".

He has had to teach himself chemistry and biology to a level where he can publish his work in scientific journals, and he's travelled all over Europe and beyond. He's been fighting for almost two decades.

Factor X

Dr David Brown
Dr David Brown, Researcher at Cambridge University
The key to the Factor X he has been looking for lies in the balance of metals in the brain. Manganese is needed by the human body to function healthily. But when humans or animals take in too much of it - especially if that coincides with a lack of copper in the body - things can go badly wrong with the brain.

Mark Purdey studied the environment in so-called cluster areas of spongiform diseases - in Colorado in the United States, in Iceland, in Italy and in the Tatra mountains of Slovakia. In all of them he found a high level of manganese and low levels of copper.

For years the scientific establishment has been able to dismiss this Somerset farmer without a degree as a maverick. But his work has now begun to attract attention in some surprising quarters.

Dr David Brown is a researcher at Cambridge University, and he is about to publish the results of his research on the brains of people who have died of CJD.

They seem to corroborate Mark Purdey's belief that the Factor X behind the disease that's killing cows and humans is manganese in the environment. The maverick is beginning to look like a visionary.

Live chat:


Click here for transcripts

Mad cows and an Englishman:
1920 GMT Sunday 25th March on BBC 2.

Reporter: Edward Stourton
Producer: Leo Telling
Executive Producer: Farah Durrani
Series Producer: Kate Snell

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Edward Stourton:
One farmer's theory on the causes of BSE
Edward Stourton
A farmer's journey accross Europe to find the truth
Edward Stourton
"The prion - the mysterious agent thought to be the cause of BSE"
Edward Stourton
"If the balance between manganese and other metals is disturbed, it affects the brain"
Edward Stourton
"David Brown is about to publish another piece of research inspired by Mark Purdey's work"
Watch the Correspondent Europe trail:
'Six powerful documentaries about human rights."
See also:

16 Feb 01 | Europe
21 Mar 01 | Health
21 Mar 01 | Health
21 Mar 01 | Health
16 Mar 01 | Science/Nature
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