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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
More questions than answers
Into the incincerator: The BSE crisis devastated an entire industry
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

More than a decade of research has still not identified the exact cause of BSE, the worst crisis to devastate British farming in modern times.

BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is more widely known as "mad cow disease".

Its presence can be established with certainty only after death, when examination of the victim's brain reveals spongy holes in the tissue.

But the stumbling gait and unpredictable behaviour of cattle in the grip of BSE is a good indication.

BSE is one of several similar diseases affecting a number of species, including humans. The best-known human equivalent is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which is invariably fatal.

Most scientists believe that BSE, first seen in 1984, was caused by feeding cattle with the remains of sheep suffering from another brain disease, scrapie.

Suspect insecticides

Changes in rendering techniques (the treatment of animal remains) are believed to have allowed the infective agent to cross between species.

But sceptics doubt the significance of the changes. Some believe BSE attacked cattle whose immune systems had been weakened by doses of organophosphate insecticides.

The government tried to contain the disease by banning the use of ruminant remains in feed for ruminants. But for almost 20 months it paid farmers only half the market cost of suspect BSE animals in compensation.

This almost certainly encouraged unscrupulous farmers to send sick animals for slaughter.

The government's critics say it should in many cases have acted faster and not waited for the scientists' advice.

They also accuse it of failing to make sure the safeguards it did introduce were properly enforced.

Five years after bovine offal material like cattle brain and spinal cord was banned from the human food chain, it was still being found on carcases ready to be sent to butchers' shops.

Yet again, the critics say, the UK had the right rules in place, but did not bother to implement them - another illustration of the British disease of being over-regulated but under-enforced.

More than a million cattle were killed to try to arrest the epidemic
In 1996, scientists suggested a probable link between BSE and CJD, an announcement which sent the beef industry into freefall.

Within days the European Union had banned all British beef exports.

The ban has gone. But so has the confidence in British meat, and with it many of the traditional markets.

The costs of the crisis are immense - more than 177,000 confirmed cases, more than 4.5 million cattle slaughtered (most as a precaution), and a 4bn bill.

One theory now holds that eating meat from BSE cattle never posed a risk, suggesting the infection entered the bloodstream through cuts and bites, or through mucous membranes.

Another says there may never have been a risk at all, and that CJD is caused by the body's own reaction to a common bacterium.

Against that, there are concerns over the possible spread of infection through blood plasma, or serum used for vaccines.

The BSE inquiry heard that officials from the Department of Health opposed any ban on bovine offals in case it caused alarm about the safety of pharmaceutical products and bovine serum.

It was told that the offal ban had been prompted by the pet food industry, fearful that cats and dogs might catch BSE.

The epidemic itself is likely to be almost played out by 2001. The answers may take longer to find.




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