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"Mad Cow" Disaster: A Free Trade Nightmare

"Mad Cow" Disaster: A Free Trade Nightmare

April, 2001 Foreign Control 
Watchdog Volume 96 by Dennis Small

As the costs of free trade mount around the world, those caused by the spread of "Mad Cow" or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) disease must be reckoned among the highest. If a human pandemic eventually emerges then it could even become the costliest specific disaster in terms of direct human impact. Some believe that this disease (and related diseases) might ultimately prove worse than AIDS. What is so disturbing about the official treatment of BSE to date has been the veil of secrecy implemented by the authorities and their systematic misleading of the public.

Free Trade Threat

Britain first discovered the disease on its territory in April 1985 when BSE erupted in a dairy herd on a farm in Kent. A spongiform encephalopathic disease was then diagnosed in 1986. The human form of BSE is recognised as a new and more aggressive strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), which is a rare fatal brain disorder first identified more than 70 years ago (NZ Ministry of Health [MoH] media release, 5/1/01). Most CJD cases seem to occur spontaneously without any known cause - at least until the advent of the BSE form of CJD. In recent times there has been much publicity about BSE and its implications, as concern mounts about its spread to more and more countries. Humans can get BSE - or more precisely the new variant form of CJD (vCJD) caused by BSE - by eating contaminated beef (according to majority opinion) and evidently also by other means. In February 2001, the latest figures showed that 86 people had died from it in Britain with another eight suspected sufferers still alive (Press, 16/2/01). As well, by January 2001 three people had died in France (Press, 1/19/01). But BSE specialists have warned that BSE-induced brain disease "could still kill millions of people" (Press, 10/8/99; & also Christchurch Star, 22/11/00). There is no cure. Aotearoa/NZ, thankfully, has so far been BSE-free, both in its animal and human versions.

British Professor Richard Lacey has been to the forefront of those scientists who have repeatedly challenged the views of the politico-scientific establishment on "Mad Cow" disease. In the mid-1990s, British officialdom was still trying to tell the local and international public that it had both adequate knowledge about the disease and effective control over the outbreak. But its messengers of reassurance sounded increasingly unconvincing as awkward cases and evidence kept arising. Professor Lacey was scathing in his condemnation of Thatcherite "free market ideology and profit before safety", including the role of free trade, for the failure by the British government to eliminate the danger (New Zealand Listener, 13/4/96, p.26). In Aotearoa/NZ, the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) had cavalierly dismissed the contentions of Lacey and other critics. Today, MAF (the present Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) has plenty of egg on its face.

From 1993 onwards, MAF has steadfastly maintained that there is no scientific evidence to show any danger from British bovine genetic imports (at least from semen). In contradistinction, Professor Lacey and a colleague have "reported evidence of paternal transmission via semen" ("Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague" by Richard Rhodes, Simon & Schuster, 1997, p.219). A seven year British study indeed supposedly found that BSE could pass from cow to calf although at "a maternal-transmission rate of only 10%" ("Deadly Feasts", p.217). But this research was apparently botched and so results are unclear. The parental pathway might still prove significant enough in the long run. Crucial to MAF's justification of British genetic imports has been its reliance on intergovernmental policy enunciated under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) - now the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - [see chapter 5 in "The Cost of Free Trade: Aotearoa/New Zealand at Risk", CAFCA, 1996]. Australia, on the other hand, had until just lately banned such genetic imports.

The GATT/WTO-endorsed Office International des Epizooties (OIE) or International Office on Epizootics (the world animal health organisation) has set the standards for trade on matters connected with BSE and so provided the guidelines used by MAF and its counterparts elsewhere. Time and again, MAF officials responsible for our biosecurity and public health made judgments about the safety of bovine imports into NZ based on the prevailing scientific consensus which proved woefully inadequate and grossly perverted by commercial considerations. All this, too, was under cover of reliance on supposed "sound science" as formally enjoined by the GATT/WTO and the OIE. In particular, as interpreted by MAF, NZ has had no defensible reason to keep out bovine genetic imports since the OIE said that these were okay. In fact, much of the crucial information obviously relied on by MAF that indicated BSE could not be passed directly from animal to animal, by either vertical transmission (via parents), or horizontal transmission (via contact between animals), came from inadequate, shonky or secretive British research inaccessible to independent scrutiny ("Deadly Feasts", p.219). At any rate, the British Ministry of Agriculture did actually report in August 1996 that "BSE may be passed from a cow to its calf" (Straight Furrow, 28/11/00).

British secrecy on BSE involved the international collaboration of a number of the world's leading scientists (Sydney Morning Herald, 17/1/01). This has been the hallmark of the BSE story. To what extent New Zealand has been involved in this remains a very big question. Driven by the market, governmental policy in country after country, not only Britain, has sought to suppress public awareness. A most revealing indication of the NZ government's attitude was the reported warning in 1996 to a journalist by the then Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Lockwood Smith, that if she mentioned the GATT or bovine tuberculosis in the same article as "Mad Cow" disease, then he would go "straight to the editor" (Dominion, 29/3/96). 1996 was the year of the British government's public confession that there was a link between some cases of human CJD and BSE. Meanwhile, MAF's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Barry O'Neil, continued to make his ritual statement that there was no scientific evidence to show any danger from British bovine imports; and, indeed, O'Neil appealed, as usual, to the OIE's sanction of the safety of such imports (Holmes, TV1, 21/3/96). Remarkably, he even declared that there was no new scientific evidence regarding them. Yet BSE had by this stage been found in the lower spinal cord and intestines, body parts formerly considered sacrosanct from the disease. Moreover, all this strenuous defensive effort was being conducted by the Ministry for the sake of a very small proportion of total bovine genetic imports.

Ratcheting Up The Risk

In NZ, the OIE's International Animal Health Code chapter for BSE was most important for MAF's regulation of trade relating to the issue. NZ has also had to conform to the GATT/WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, which deals with such issues. In response to public concern and developing new knowledge the NZ government has at times taken some extra protective measures. During the late 1980s, the Government was sufficiently moved to impose bans both on the importation of live cattle (December 1988 onwards) and bovine/embryo imports (June 1989 onwards) from Britain but later lifted these bans in 1993, following OIE assessment of the risks involved.

In a letter (7/11/94) to the writer from the then Minister of Agriculture, John Falloon, the Government made its position clear enough: "The bans were instituted because at the time there was insufficient information regarding BSE. However, by late 1993 the OIE had met and developed the Animal Health Code chapter for BSE and New Zealand had developed importation conditions for bovine semen and embryos from the United Kingdom that were suitable to protect New Zealand's animal health status". Thus governmental justification for the lifting of these bans rested on the judgment that the OIE had appropriately adopted a number of "conditions under which cattle and bovine products can be traded without risk to agricultural security or public health" (MAF press release quoting Dr. O'Neil, 5/9/94). These OIE regulatory conditions gave licence and impetus to the export of BSE across the globe.

Given the intensity of public concern, MAF did see fit to also institute a tracing system for semen and embryo imports from the United Kingdom (UK) and it had already enacted extra requirements to the OIE conditions for these particular imports, e.g. germ plasm imports must come from a farm that has never had a case of BSE. Later, a temporary ban was again imposed for a while on British bovine genetic imports. It should be noted, too, that whatever the exact official policy at any particular time, there have in fact been no live cattle imports into NZ from Britain since 1987 and none from Europe since about the start of the 1980s (information from a telephone discussion with a MAF official in February 2001).

Over the years, however, NZ government policy on BSE has obviously been marked by significant fluctuations and inconsistency in protection concerning this issue. If the Government were to try and justify its policy changes on grounds of fluctuating real risks, its argument cannot stand up when matched with what has happened overseas. Instead, MAF has been driven in its policy turns and twists by changing fashions in perceptions and understanding rather than the underlying progress of the disease. The present state of world panic once more dramatically demonstrates this. In certain important ways, things have actually been getting a lot worse than the international public were led to believe. So much of the looming potential damage was done in the early period when the authorities blithely disregarded the very real risks. As a rider, though, the term "fashions in perceptions" as used here should be qualified in the sense that on occasion, as previously intimated, there have been publicised advances in scientific understanding of BSE for which a NZ governmental response was clearly warranted.

In 2001, with regard to living material/organisms, only bovine semen can be imported from Britain into NZ. Furthermore, responding to the current wave of anxiety about BSE sweeping the world, the MoH has been trying to reassure New Zealanders that they are properly protected against the disease. This Ministry instituted a ban on British beef and beef products in 1996 when the British governmental realisation of the human form of BSE was first publicised; and in January 2001 the MoH extended the "import suspension" to products from Europe in general (MoH media releases, 2/11/00 & 5/1/01).

Trading in a Deadly New Plague

So far as some European countries are concerned it is certainly very clear that the GATT/WTO/OIE's free trade policy has been disastrous. It is very likely that more countries around the world will eventually be adversely affected by the OIE's trading approach and this according to the organisation's own admission - at least indirectly. In February 2001, OIE director-general Bernard Vallat said it was "not impossible" that countries which had imported contaminated meat-and-bone meal (MBM) from Europe had already developed cases of BSE (Press, 12/2/01). In other words, the disease could have reached beyond Britain and the European continent. The general scientific view is that feeding cattle MBM infected with the BSE agent has been the main way in which the disease has spread. This, of course, has been facilitated - indeed, promoted - by free trade policy, official incompetence and manipulation, etc. Taking a global perspective, the OIE acknowledged that a lack of surveillance and testing could mean that BSE cases are sometimes going undetected. While Britain banned the domestic feeding of MBM in July 1988 it "exported possibly infectious feedstuffs until 1996" (Press, 12/2/01). Fortunately, this is not of direct concern in NZ as no ruminant feedstocks have been imported here from the 1980s on. But besides Europe many Asian and other countries imported British MBM.

Some members of the international public directly affected have initiated legal proceedings against certain of the authorities involved. The families of two French BSE victims have filed suits against Britain, France and the European Union (EU) for failing to take steps to prevent the disease from spreading (Press, 20/11/00). The writ alleges the charge of "poisoning" against the authorities and "targets Britain for persisting in the export of potentially contaminated bone-meal even after it was banned for domestic use in 1988" (Press, 20/11/00). It was most ironic that, whereas in July 1999, the EU had decided to lift a three year ban imposed in 1996 on British beef (starting August 1, 1999), the new BSE tumult resulted in a number of European countries placing total or part bans on beef and beef cattle imports. This has all been hugely reinforced with the horribly unfortunate outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain in February 2001. To be sure, Britain itself was obliged place a ban on its own exports of meat, dairy produce and livestock while the European ban was correspondingly extended. Contaminated imports from Asia or the Middle East or South Africa are being blamed for the foot and mouth outbreak (TVNZ, One News, 2/3/01).

In the same month as the OIE admission cited above, Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said that at least 100 countries are now at risk because they imported cattle or MBM from Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these countries are in the Third World. According to the observations already made, the risk of harm in NZ may seem low but could British or European imports to countries used as sources for NZ eventually undermine our BSE-free status? For instance, Australia has taken in some suspect cattle from Britain. Consequently, Dr Lynette Dumble, medical scientist and activist, has well warned how the globalisation of BSE may have reached Australasia (Sydney Morning Herald, 17/1/01). The cattle concerned came to Australia via Argentina. She has denounced the British-spawned global plague "as another shameful chapter of British imperialism".

Since vertical transmission of BSE is considered so very unlikely as a means of transmission of the disease this has provided the rationale for the continuance of British semen imports. But proper precaution would exclude them altogether, especially since some data may show such transmission (e.g. see "Deadly Feasts", p.219). It should always be kept in mind that BSE has proved to be an especially puzzling and unpredictable disease and may yet have more unpleasant surprises in store.

Heated debate was waged over bovine genetic imports in the mid-1990s with MAF standing firm in their defence. In February 2001 it was related that: "An area of concern to some Australian farmers and breeders is the relaxation in November (2000) of a ban on importing cattle semen and embryos from BSE-affected countries after a ruling by the World Animal Health Organisation that genetic material was not considered a pathway for BSE transmission" (Press, 17/2/01). So the OIE carries on facilitating free trade at the greater risk of animal and ultimately human health, compounding all its previous errors. On a warning note, the particular press report just cited points out that: "Semen, cheaper to import than live animals, contains lymphocytes which have been implicated in the spread of TSEs [transmissible spongiform encephalopathies]" (Press, 17/2/01). TSE is the generic term for all the various spongiform diseases of animals and humans such as BSE and CJD.

One of the puzzles which I encountered when researching the OIE standards for safe trade in the early 1990s was Article 3.2.13.7 of the organisation's International Animal Health Code chapter for BSE. This Article contained a requirement that "the feeding of protein products derived from tissues listed below originating from ruminants over six months of age to cattle has been banned. The tissues referred to above are: brain, spinal cord, thymus, tonsils, spleen and intestine (from duodenum to rectum)". As well, this condition also applied for Article 3.2.13.9 which dealt with the import of "bovine embryos/ova". Why was a "six months of age" cut off point stipulated in the OIE regulation regarding feedstuffs? After all, the age limit could be interpreted pretty loosely for a start. Indeed, at the time one MAF scientist, namely Dr. Stuart MacDiarmid, National Manager of the MAF Regulatory Authority, had even reported that a majority of BSE cases were known to have acquired the infection during the first six months of life! I tried to get a meaningful clarification from Mr Falloon, as Minister of Agriculture, about the reason(s) for the six month cut off point and resolution of such inconsistency but he simply appealed to the authority of the OIE. Certainly, it is generally considered that older cattle - i.e., over 30 months old - are the group most likely to transmit the disease to other animals and also humans.

In November 1989, a British ban "was imposed on human consumption of specified bovine tissues known to harbour BSE. These 'specified offals' . . . included the brain, spinal cord, thymus and spleen . . ." ("Plagues on our Doorstep: The Threat of Infectious Disease in New Zealand" by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, Tandem Press, 1999, p.88). However, until July 1994, MAF's UK equivalent allowed the use for human consumption of cattle offal from cattle younger than six months, since at the time, according to the official line as expressed in the OIE's rules, there was nothing to suggest BSE infection in calves of this age category (see North and South, December 1994, pp.161-169). Then an experiment revealed BSE in the small intestine of some calves under six months of age and the British government immediately extended the offal ban to include intestines of calves below this age. The finding effectively demolished the theory that "detectable concentrations of BSE were confined to the brain and upper spinal cord of cattle", although free trade proponents continued to argue that the experiment was conducted under highly artificial conditions. "Offal" as a trade term can cover any waste material cut off from a carcass - from the head to the tail.

Official Bull

Placed in this context, a newspaper report can incisively highlight how badly BSE has been misconstrued: "Meals for babies and school children 'could have contained remnants of the spinal cord' of cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy"; and this "may explain the high occurrence of the incurable killer disease among young people in Britain" (Press, 18/7/00). While the incubation period for BSE can be very long - up to 30 years or more - a major worrying puzzle in Britain is the number of young people who have contracted the disease. Moreover, a cluster of human cases had occurred in one village in Leicestershire, prompting an epidemiologist to say, in July 2000, that with 12 cases already that year an epidemic seemed to be under way (Press, 18/7/00). These days the spinal cord of slaughtered cattle has become the focus of great concern and the EU food safety commissioner has indicated his organisation's desire to remove it completely from the food chain (NZ Herald & Press, 31/1/01).

In this connection, then, it is very pertinent to note that, in December 2000, Dr. MacDiarmid, as MAF risk management national manager, drew attention to a critical failure which had been found in the British meat processing system: "While it was often suggested that the human variant of BSE (new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease [or vCJD]) was due to eating beef, the real villain was [now] believed to be mechanically recovered meat" (Press, 1/12/00). When stripped from cows' backbones, this meat had included external extensions of the spinal column (upper or lower or both?!; under or over six months or both!?). It should be recorded here that the British government, in fact, only got round to completely banning the use of cattle offal for human consumption in 1995. Before that, France was especially hard hit by British exports. One investigation has found that French "consumers had for eight years eaten food made with beef offal from Britain" (Press, 9/11/00). Meantime, MAF's Dr. MacDiarmid has also said that the Ministry would study imported pet food to see whether cats and dogs can contract "Mad Cow" disease from it (Press, 1/12/00). To date, while cats have been known to contract the feline equivalent, it has never been found in dogs.

From the start of 2001, "EU governments banned all meat-based livestock feed and set up a compulsory testing programme for older cattle" (Press, 31/1/01). The European MBM ban is a six months suspension which started on January 1, 2001. In one of those problematic ironies of life concern has been sounded about an influx of genetically engineered soya from the US to substitute for the banned feed. Significantly, with regard to the new European controls, a proposal by the European Commission has widened "the current list of 'specified risk materials' (animal parts such as brains and nerve tissues known to spread 'Mad Cow' disease) to include beef intestine of all ages" (Press, 1/12/00).

Given the green light by a combination of commercial priorities, faulty scientific reasoning, and inefficient controls and processing methods, lax trading policy enabled Britain to export BSE-risk products and livestock relatively freely and extensively for about a decade. For ten years, in fact, the British Establishment, in conjunction with the GATT/WTO/OIE, deleteriously manipulated the trust of its own people, and the international community. After the UK government finally admitted, in March 1996, that BSE had probably spread to humans from eating beef, the EU "blocked imports from Britain not only of meat but also of many beef by-products . . ." ("Deadly Feasts", p.213). Political conflict then erupted between Britain and the rest of the EU.

"Until the EU ban, France had imported 88,000 tons of British beef annually as well as livestock. British meat-and-bone meal had flowed liberally to Europe until 1988, and there was evidence that British suppliers had illegally dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated product after that" ("Deadly Feasts", p.214). A total of 57,900 head of purebred breeding stock alone was shipped to Europe between 1985 and 1990. It was even discovered that over 100,000 veal calves exported to France from Britain in 1995 never went to slaughter when young but were instead illegally absorbed into herds in France, Italy, Spain and Holland.

We have cited Dr MacDiarmid's reference to the theory of the spread of BSE as a result of inefficient mechanical processing. Another theory for its spread has focused on a change in British rendering practices "to separate molten fats called tallow from the protein-rich 'greaves' that go into MBM" ("Plagues on our Doorstep", p.87). A fat extraction step with "prolonged heating" was dropped in the rendering process and this might have allowed the disease to develop.

Tracking Down A Prion Disease

For quite some time it was thought that BSE was due to a virus. It was only the work of dissenting scientists like Professor Stanley B Prusiner of the California School of Medicine, San Francisco (e.g. see Scientific American, January 1995, pp. 30-37), that established BSE was actually an instance of a wholly new type of disease (i.e. new to scientific understanding) - the "prion" diseases. "Prions" are maverick proteins or more precisely "small proteinaceous infectious particles which are resistant to inactivation by most procedures that modify nucleic acids" ("Deadly Feasts", p.247). An alternative definition is that "prions" are "unconventional proteins . . . that can replicate themselves without the help of nucleic acids like DNA or RNA" ("Plagues on our Doorstep", p.86). This capacity is apparently unique in nature. In the body, prions can reshape otherwise similar conventional proteins into their peculiarly destructive deviant version. The disease develops through a chain reaction, eventually causing obvious symptoms of behavioural degeneration. It has to be recorded here, as will be further indicated below, that some scientists would not accept the alternative definition of "prions" - instead they would argue that nucleic acids may indeed be involved but within another mode of reproduction.

Besides BSE, animal forms of prion diseases include sheep scrapie. BSE is widely thought to have originated from sheep scrapie, thus jumping unpredictably from one species to another. Many scientists have been of the view that the use of contaminated sheep products in cattle feed led to "Mad Cow" disease which was then spread further by making cattle cannibals of their own kind through the consumption of bovine MBM as well. Certainly, the evidence shows that MBM feed has broadcast the disease. Industrialised farming has a lot to answer for on this one count alone. A German Health Minister, Andrea Fischer, in resigning over the "Mad Cow" scare, even blamed "modern factory farming methods" and the dominance of "financial interests" for the disease (Press, 11/1/01). As earlier noted, in July 1988, the British government brought in a ban on feeding ruminant-derived protein to ruminants but "it would not be properly policed for years" ("Deadly Feasts", p.178). The decline of animal BSE cases in Britain is however attributed to implementation of this ban. As if to illustrate Ms Fischer's remarks, in February 2001, a junior minister in the Irish government "resigned after an investigation was launched over his vote against legislation designed to prevent the spread of BSE" (Press, 19/2/01). His family farm was found to hold a licence to feed MBM to pigs.

BSE has become a world issue. By 1999 American consumer groups had become concerned that lax animal feeding regulations were "allowing a 'Mad Cow' disease to spread in the US. Already, 'Mad Cow' type diseases known as Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) infect deer, elk, sheep and now humans in the US" (Safe Food Campaign Newsletter, no.1, 1999). The American consumer groups have been campaigning against cannibalistic animal feeding practices. "These practices are...legal in New Zealand where the ground-up remains of animals are routinely fed to pigs, chickens and calves" (ibid). A ban does currently exist on the feeding of ruminant products (except milk) to ruminants, i.e. a ban on feeding cattle, sheep and deer back to cattle, sheep or deer (Press, 11/5/00).

Whereas until lately British research on BSE had focused on cattle, it has been recognised that "a whole range of farm animals could be silent carriers of the deadly disorder" along with humans (Press, 30/8/00 & also 18/9/00). Experiments are even being currently conducted on NZ sheep to test the theory that BSE "can be passed on by blood transfusions before symptoms in the donor appear" (Press, 18/9/00). As a British expert, Professor John Collinge states: "Although they may not show any signs of disease . . . (other animals) could still harbour high levels of the infectious agent and therefore pose a risk" (Press, 18/9/00). Collinge is a member of the British government's BSE Advisory Committee. According to the press report just cited, the researchers found that blood donated by symptom free CJD-infected human beings may represent a risk of spread of CJD infection, citing "convincing evidence" of transmission although findings were still considered preliminary at that stage. In the past this sort of risk had been disregarded.

Thus data is accumulating that indicates both animals and humans could be silent, if apparently healthy, carriers of the disease, passing it on to resurface later. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (9/9/00), Jennifer Cooke, author of the book "Cannibals, Cows and the CJD Catastrophe", warns that possibly "anyone who has been exposed to prions . . . has the potential to be a silent carrier". CJD-contaminated surgical instruments and tissue donations could become a very real danger to human life and health. In Britain, the wider use of disposable surgical instruments is one of the anti-vCJD measures that have been recently adopted. Governmental/official policy has had to make some drastic changes of late. Indeed, in the early stages of BSE its infectious nature was comprehensively misunderstood. In 1989, a British BSE working party report had pretty well dismissed any danger to human health from the disease.

Again, until just lately, it was thought that there was no risk at all from BSE-contaminated blood transfusions. However, further knowledge eventually prompted preventive action in NZ. The NZ Blood Service banned 12,000 people, who lived in Britain for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 and so may have been exposed to CJD, from giving blood to others (Press, 20/11/99). Thus the authorities have come to see that "Mad Cow" disease may not necessarily be directly transmitted from a mad cow. Professor Collinge's research actually suggests a far greater danger in "that if the infection lay hidden in the farmyard, it could travel without check" (Press, 30/8/00).

As governmental reports and research, along with independent studies, continued to paint a much more critical picture; and as the documented number of human and animal BSE cases (in France and elsewhere in Europe besides Britain) grew in number, the grim reality and enormous potential extent of the "Mad Cow" plague began to arouse world consciousness. As well, the true nature of the abuses of the authorities responsible, both national and international, is also coming to light. Many scientists and officials are now damnably on record as making a wide range of discredited claims about BSE and its ramifications. This follows in the tracks of the nuclear power industry, the pesticide industry, and various other commercially-driven scientific/technological programmes. The latest threat, of course, is genetic engineering.

Concerning BSE, the question has even been posed: "Did a UK science blunder cause 'Mad Cow' disease?" (Press, 10/8/99). It has been alleged that: "The promiscuous use of pituitary hormones in cattle led to BSE in the same way that they led to CJD in humans. The timing of the deaths in cattle and humans who were exposed to pituitary hormones is very compelling" (Press, 10/8/99). Hormones, from the brains of slaughtered cattle, "were injected into cows in a bid to create a new breed of super-cattle". In the case of humans, hormone treatment has been stopped because of the risk of CJD transmission.

Puzzling Perverse Prions

In actuality, little is yet really known about the mechanisms of the transmission of "Mad Cow" disease to humans (Press, 18/11/00). The official British independent investigative report (The BSE Inquiry) that has recently been released "speculates that a genetic abnormality in a cow in the early 1970s" led it to develop an abnormal version of a prion protein which spread, "through recycling, to other animals and finally extensively into the national herd" via the use of carcass material rendered into animal feed (Press, 18/11/00). "But speculation is what typifies most comment - even of the scientists" was the concluding judgment of this press article on the current state of knowledge of BSE (Press, 18/11/00 - appropriately enough, the article was titled "Mad Cow Mystery").

Let us go back to some statements by NZ MAF scientists in the 1990s. Here is a declaration by MAF's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Barry O'Neil in 1994. Dr O'Neil was attempting to counter criticism made in a searching television Frontline item screened on 4 September 1994. In a Ministry press release (5/9/94), Dr O'Neil asserted that: "Since BSE was first recognised in 1986 a tremendous amount of good scientific information has been gathered on the disease. Despite the occasional ill-informed and sensational outbursts in the media, there is no doubt that BSE is a feedborne disease, which is non-contagious and has been declining in the United Kingdom since the middle of 1993". There has been a lot more of this sort of stuff since from MAF, including a vigorous and intimidating complaint against Television NZ and the Frontline programme to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), which was silly enough to find in MAF's favour on several points. In MAF's complaints to the BSA, the OIE was lauded in a most deferential manner. These days Dr O'Neil is Group Director of MAF Biosecurity.

On the Frontline item, Dr Peter O'Hara, Deputy Director-General of MAF, explicitly justified the germ plasm imports by appeal to the GATT rules. Dr O'Hara said that NZ had never had a zero risk policy. He said the Government had to allow the imports since it could not defend a ban under GATT. As well, the Minister of Agriculture, John Falloon, maintained that NZ could not put on a ban since other countries could start pointing the finger at it in turn, e.g. regarding the problem of bovine tuberculosis infection. Such are the trade offs for human (and animal) health and welfare through the machinations of free trade.

In December 1993, Dr O'Hara affirmed, with regard to genetic bovine imports from Britain, that: "The probability that we would select unwittingly a BSE donor from a herd that has not yet shown BSE is, we estimate, about one in a million. And then we are taking tissues which are not known to transmit the disease" (Press, 31/12/93). Significantly enough, this "one in a million" estimate had been made by MAF representatives on other occasions. Intrigued about this particular estimate which had been commonly used in the past by the nuclear and other dangerous industries, I requested the workings for it under the Official Information Act. The reply of Agriculture Minister, John Falloon, was as follows: "The 'one in a million chance' comment you refer to was the result of discussions within the Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) and was not committed to paper. This comment does not refer to the chance of BSE introduction. MAF considers that a one in a million chance of introduction of BSE through semen and embryos to be unacceptable. The comment refers to the chance of the donor being infected, this does not mean that the recipient will become infected".

So apparently MAF considered an estimate which was only the result of internal "discussions" (at morning or afternoon tea?!) was worth putting into the public arena as part of the justification for the lifting of the ban on the importation of bovine genetic material. This was outrageous. Altogether there had been quite some confusion sown by MAF's public relations claims about a risk assessment study which obviously had no substance at all. In point of fact, Falloon firmly declared that: "Because of the wealth of information already known on the disease and the recommendations made by the OIE a quantitative risk analysis would add nothing substantial to the debate".

Yet, today, it is acknowledged that there is still no proof even that eating infected meat causes the human form of the disease. Some scientific opinion suspects that "some other factor - genetic perhaps, or exposure to organo-phosphate chemical widely used in farming - could be involved" (Press, 18/11/00). In some quarters, there are actually doubts about the assumed link between eating meat and vCJD. Whatever the ultimate truth, it is certainly clear at any rate that the suspicion about genetic factors in the generation of BSE should flash worldwide like a huge red warning light on the risks of genetic engineering.

There are other theories on BSE. Nobel Laureate scientist Carleton Gajdusek, who probably "knows more than anyone else in the world about transmissible spongiform encephalopathy", puts forward "abnormal protein crystallisation as the cause of TSE" ("Deadly Feasts", pp.240 & 242). The key problem Gajdusek has addressed is the mode of reproduction in TSEs. Unlike the rest of organic life, TSEs do not evidently reproduce through the mechanism of nucleic acids, at least without some other critical factor operating as well. Gajdusek appeals to crystal formation as generated by a nucleant or nucleating agent which supplies the pattern for other crystals to follow. He believes that the TSE process develops in a similar way. While nucleic acids are still involved, the mechanism of the disease means that an abnormal protein intervenes along the way to change the developing protein's final form. But Gajdusek's theory still does not really account for the initiating cause of the crystallisation process he proposes. Nevertheless, he does suggest, ominously enough, that common environmental agents like mineral dust can initiate TSEs.

One theory on BSE is quite "out of this world", claiming that extra-terrestrial bacteria from comets could be the cause (The Press, 8/12/00). This theory is being promoted by the famous astronomer, Professor Sir Fred Hoyle and his colleague, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe. The two astronomers consider that the practice of "wintering out" British cattle exposes these cattle to the BSE-inducing micro-bacteria. Professor Wickrasmasinghe claims that their "theory is starting to gain currency throughout the academic world" since other possible answers seem to be exhausted (Press, 8/12/00).

Undermining Biosecurity

What was so sadly lacking in the 1980s and 1990s, after the discovery of the disease in 1985, was the failure to properly apply the precautionary principle. This principle, if applied rigorously from the start in Britain would have seen a lot more efficient monitoring, testing and control. Application of the precautionary principle means that: "lack of conclusive scientific evidence does not justify inaction, particularly when the consequences of inaction may be devastating or when the costs of action are negligible" ("Environment and Trade: A Handbook", United Nations Environment Programme, 2000, p.9). In the case of BSE, the authorities did not respond quickly and comprehensively enough to stop the spread of a new, very strange and very dangerous disease. The point has now been reached where many countries are engaged in horrendously widespread and wasteful slaughter of animals, compounded by the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak. In the meantime, the risks to human populations have increased hugely in potential through the trading and marketing practices that the GATT/WTO and their designated appropriate authority, the OIE, have allowed - indeed fostered - around the world.

As already emphasised, along with the exposure of incompetence and dereliction of duty, have been the revelations of the extent to which the British government deliberately lied to its own people about the dangers of CJD posed by eating beef (Press, 4/11/00). The governmental report (commissioned to be independent) cited earlier with reference to genetic mutation as the probable origin of BSE has shown that there were "an astonishing level of cover ups to prevent the public knowing the truth about the scale of the disease" (Press, 4/11/00). In NZ, MAF's deference to British officialdom on BSE has reflected a well worn, traditional pattern that urgently needs review (NZ Listener, 13/4/96, pp.24-26).

At the dawn of the new Millennium, EU health and consumer protection commissioner, David Byrne, was bold (brash!?) enough to claim that: "British beef is only exported under strict safety conditions which have been evaluated by scientists who concluded that it was as safe as any other beef in Europe" (Press, 20/3/00). Whatever the contemporary truth of his claim, the sorry historical record reveals that, among other failings, actual policy in practice meant shoddy, even cynical, regulation. Rather than being the exporter's responsibility, the view prevailed that "it was up to the importing countries to put in place all the guarantees needed" to ensure safety for consumers ("Deadly Feasts", p.214). In fact, the British Ministry of Agriculture was quite duplicitous. It "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" (Sydney Morning Herald, 17/1/01). Two million calves were transported to European saleyards between 1990 and 1995 under this regime.

Many challenging questions, problems and issues are arising out of the BSE crisis. The advent of BSE seems to mark the aggressive emergence of prion diseases generally. With the world confronting a whole advancing phalanx of diseases and pests thriving in the interlinked ecological and social disruptions caused by globalisation, the prospects ahead could rapidly get very grim if radical changes are not made (e.g. see "Future Plagues: Biohazard, Disease and Pestilence: Mankind's Battle for Survival" by Peter Brookesmith, Brown Books, 1997). Sir John Pattison, chairperson of the British government's scientific advisory body on BSE, has said: "We, as a population, are in deep trouble" (Press, 10/8/99). This can now be readily generalised beyond Britain, and "the United Nations warns that countries in eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and India have a high risk of harbouring BSE" (NZ Herald, 31/1/01).

The BSE crisis has parallels in the perception and increasing awareness of other mobile environmental threats. As eminent biologist Edward Wilson has remarked, humankind is waking up to the danger to biodiversity from invasive species; and Wilson has aptly noted that "due to increased commerce all around the world quarantine systems of many countries are weak . . ." (TVNZ, Our World, "State of the Planet", episode.3: "Life's Future", 3/3/01). Wilson's comment can apply to biosecurity in general as this buckles under free trade/investment pressures. In Aotearoa/NZ, there are renewed fears about border control. At present, NZ and Australia are looking to coordinate and extend their ban on food imports from BSE-affected countries (Press, 2/3/01). Yet the NZ Government earlier indicated a certification scheme would replace a NZ ban on European beef imports at some point in the future. Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton has declared that: "The key was to strike the right balance between science and public concern" (Press, 16/1/01). Given the very disturbing record of flawed science and commercialised public health on BSE, his statement hardly inspires confidence. The Labour/Alliance government is today under heavy criticism for what many see as insufficient action on safeguards against the BSE and foot and mouth diseases (e.g. Press, 1/3/01). As with BSE, Britain has exported, or at least relayed in this particular case, this disease onto Europe and elsewhere.

At present, NZ farming is rather smugly looking at the "Mad Cow"/foot and mouth disasters in possible windfall terms - more sales to Europe and perhaps other countries. This comes at the very time when the corporate, industrialised system of agriculture and its free trade impetus is clawing deep into our own heartland. While British Prime Minister Tony Blair rightly calls for reform of the factory farm approach and its consequent animal abuse, we have press headlines in NZ like "Feedlot moves worry animal welfare experts" (Press, 1/3/01). There is growing concern "about big changes being signalled for traditional pastoral farming in New Zealand" (ibid). A case in point relates to the dairy expansion plans of the Otago-based Big Sky syndicate operating at Patearoa, 90km north east of Alexandra.

In NZ, it is surely most symbolic that ACT party founder and president, Sir Roger Douglas, was once a factory-style pig farmer; and that ACT MP and former President of Federated Farmers, Owen Jennings, is an enthusiast of privatisation as well as speculative get rich schemes. As the political director of Compassion in World Farming has said: "If we want to end the persistent disasters of BSE, swine fever, and now foot and mouth we need to have a radical reform of the way we farm animals . . ." (Press, 27/2/01). This must include opposition to corporate free trade. Adoption of a more vegetarian diet in so called "developed countries" and in certain parts of the Third World would also increase available space and resources for producing food for more people. This could greatly alleviate world hunger and help substantially improve human health in affluent areas.

The ironies continue to multiply. France has been a victim of free trade but has been signalling its willingness "to talk about ways to free up trade"; and doing so even as it "was calling for a Europe-wide regime to combat 'Mad Cow' disease" (Press, 30/11/00). Canada's ban on Brazilian beef "has triggered such a backlash that Brazil's government has warned that it could end the dream of hemisphere-wide free trade zone" (Press, 10/2/01); and Canada's fellow partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the US and Mexico, were obliged to follow suit in imposing bans on Brazilian beef.

Crisis Should Signal A New Direction

A newspaper editorial refers to "warnings that vCJD is likely to break out in many countries, and not just in Europe"; and observes how: "Many experts point to the international trade in potentially contaminated stock food and beef products, and the common international practice of feeding cattle with cattle-derived meal" (Press, 9/1/01). In similar fashion, the editorial supports consumer concerns and correctly slams the European authorities for "an appalling succession of official incompetence, evasion, and stupidity about a basic food item and a lethal problem". It acknowledges too that consumer action has been needed to call governments to account and get an improvement by the authorities in response to BSE. But while the editorial goes on to sensibly call for an "official audit of the wider situation", including things like animal feed, the use of chemicals, and so on, it fails to also draw the obvious conclusion about the ravages caused by corporate free trade and free market activities which have so corrupted governmental policy. The BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks together represent a dire warning of what free trade and freewheeling privatisation mean in terms of the deleterious reduction in food safety, public health, biosecurity and environmental standards. In mid-March 2001, MAF was obliged to place a temporary suspension on the importation of European animal products in response to the worsening foot and mouth crisis (Press, 15/3/01).

While the changes required for a sustainable, humane and just food system are certainly much deeper than someone like Tony Blair would envisage, the BSE/foot and mouth crises are prompting a significant shift in thinking across Europe and hopefully elsewhere (Press, 6/3/01). On a visit to NZ, a European Commission (EC) lawyer with responsibility for the EC's livestock market organisation stated that BSE "was speeding a European change in which issues about the environment, animal welfare, and food were moving up the political agenda" (Press, 19/2/01). Some of this might yet rub off on our own Government - perhaps enough to reconsider the folly of the road it is taking. NZ is certainly in danger of fatally compromising its highly valued (if somewhat already mythical) "clean, green" image. But we still have the scope to change track more easily than agro-industrialised countries.


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