Biologists warn of disease among deer

Biologists warn of disease among deer

June 2, 2001 The Kansas City Star by Bill Graham
LONDON - Senior members of the British government held internal discussions in 1990 about the morality of exporting animal feed products that were probably infected with mad-cow disease, documents reveal.

The documents -- internal memos and minutes of meetings involving cabinet ministers and senior officials -- show how the government considered slapping a ban on the exports to help prevent the deadly disease from spreading to other countries.

The country's chief medical officer, Sir Donald Acheson, argued internally that it would be "short-sighted" to take precautions against mad-cow disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), solely within Britain without also trying to stop it from creeping into other nations.

Sir Donald warned officials in the Agriculture Ministry that unless an outright export ban was imposed or other countries were warned about the potential dangers of the products they were importing, Britain could one day be viewed as the nation that gave mad-cow disease to the world.

In the end, the government opted against blocking exports. Instead, it decided a warning would suffice, and other countries could make their own judgment call about the risk of importing the products from the United Kingdom.

Eleven years later, critics say it was a mistake that contributed to the spread of a disease that some experts fear could become an international epidemic.

The product at the centre of the problem was bovine meat and bone meal (MBM). This product, processed by rendering plants, was the ground-up, protein-rich remains of dead cattle not used for human consumption.

For decades, many western countries such as Britain, Canada and the U.S. had been feeding the product to cattle to improve their dairy output and improve their muscle mass. But by the mid-1980s, the cannibalistic feeding practice had been identified as the principal route by which BSE was transmitted among British cattle.

In 1988, Britain imposed a domestic ban on feeding cow-based MBM back to ruminants, such as cows and sheep. It did allow the product to be fed to pigs and poultry (although that practice, too, was banned in 1996 after it became clear that some of the products destined for pigs and poultry were ending up in cow stalls).

Because of the 1988 ban, British companies that produce MBM were stockpiling the products and were looking for a place beyond the domestic market to sell them.

It is now evident they found willing buyers abroad.

Indeed, in recent months it has become clear that BSE has spread to other European countries that imported the U.K. meat and bone meal for pig and poultry feed. It appears some farmers in those nations either deliberately fed the MBM to cows, or there was unintentional "cross contamination" of cow feed with poultry and pig feed containing the MBM.

As well, United Nations agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization have warned that an unknown quantity of the beef byproducts exported from the U.K. to Europe were then repackaged, relabelled and shipped to potentially dozens of other countries worldwide.

Because it is now widely accepted that people can contract the fatal form of mad-cow disease -- variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) -- from eating BSE-infected beef, there are growing concerns about the public-health consequences.

In 1996, in the wake of evidence that vCJD was linked to mad-cow disease, the European Commission imposed a complete ban on the export from the U.K. of cattle and MBM. Now, Britain is being condemned for allowing the exports of MBM.

In a recent interview with the Citizen, well-known British microbiologist Richard Lacey said many Britons are so "patriotic" and loyal to domestic food that they still haven't realized their country may have caused an international epidemic.

"Our nation put short-term greed above everything else," said Mr. Lacey, one of the first scientists who warned publicly that humans could get vCJD from eating contaminated beef.

"It was all part of the British arrogance. We were happy to export dirty products on countries that we despise, because we think we're superior. It was absolute arrogance."

Details of how the government debated whether to block exports are contained in the massive archival files collected by a British commission of inquiry that examined the mad-cow scandal. The inquiry, led by Lord Nicholas Phillips, issued its report last October.

Like many other findings in the inquiry's report, which vCJD victims' families complain was too soft on ministers and officials, the document is not critical of the government's decision to allow exports.

The inquiry concludes the government likely would have been hit with a lawsuit from the feed industry if it had tried to impose an export ban. However, it does provide a paper trail of documents that provide a revealing glimpse into the internal debate that raged at a key juncture in the mad-cow saga.

The backdrop was a policy position the government's chief veterinary officer, Keith Meldrum, had spelled out in a June 1989 letter to the British Cattle Veterinary Association.

Mr. Meldrum wrote that the government believed it was up to importing countries to decide if they wanted to allow MBM to cross their borders.

"We do not consider it morally indefensible to export meat and bone meal to other countries since it may be used for feeding to pigs and poultry in this country."

However, officials in the British Health Department felt differently. Among them was Dr. Hilary Pickles, a senior medical officer. On Dec. 1, 1989, she wrote Sir Donald, her superior and the country's chief medical officer, to "formally" lodge her concerns.

"We acted promptly in this country to ban the feeding of this material last summer," wrote Dr. Pickles. "The tardy response from other nations, with so far only one or two restricting the use of U.K. imports, suggests that the risk has not been fully appreciated overseas. Indeed it is unrealistic to expect nations who have not seen any BSE (yet) to give this any priority."

On Jan. 3, 1990, Sir Donald wrote to chief veterinary officer Meldrum, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF).

"I remain concerned that we are not being consistent in our attempts to contain the risks of BSE," wrote Sir Donald. He suggested either a ban on exports of MBM, or "at least," proper labelling of the products to "make it absolutely clear" they should not be fed to cows.

Otherwise, he warned, "the difficult problems we have faced with BSE may well occur in other countries."

"Surely it is short sighted for us to risk being seen in future as having been responsible for the introduction of BSE to the food chain in other countries," wrote Sir Donald.

Three weeks later, on Jan. 24, officials in MAFF held a closed-door meeting with their agriculture minister, John Gummer. Minutes of the meeting reveal some amazingly frank discussions.

It started with Mr. Gummer asking why the government had banned the feeding of MBM to ruminants, but was still allowing it to be fed to pigs and poultry.

"How could we be so sure that the (BSE) agent would not also infect pigs and poultry?" he asked. "Perhaps the reason that no form of porcine encephalopathy had developed was because pigs were killed too young for the disease to develop."

Mr. Gummer wondered if the government should extend the feeding ban to include pigs. But Mr. Meldrum said there was no "scientific justification" for such a measure.

Besides, Mr. Meldrum added, "such a move would give rise to pressures for a whole range of equally unjustified restrictions which would have a major damaging and permanent affect on the rendering industry."

Mr. Meldrum drew attention to Sir Donald's Jan. 3 letter. He said the U.K. was exporting MBM to various countries.

"If we informed them that these products were not permitted to be fed to ruminants in the U.K., Mr. Meldrum was convinced the countries concerned would cease to import them," the documents say.

Nonetheless, according to the minutes, Mr. Gummer said that "we had a moral obligation to ensure that importing countries were aware that we did not permit the feeding of these products to ruminants."

Mr. Gummer told Mr. Meldrum to write to those countries that imported U.K. meat and bone meal and also to inform countries of the dangers associated with feeding the product to cows.

Mr. Meldrum wrote back to Sir Donald on Feb. 9, 1990, and made it clear an export ban was not in the cards. He wrote that other European Community (EC) countries had been kept "fully informed" from the outset about BSE.

"They are of course at liberty, in the light of this knowledge, to stop imports or to impose whatever health conditions they wish prior to any importation."

He added "a few" non-EC countries had been importing MBM, "but in very small quantities."

To make sure those countries were "absolutely certain about the situation," Mr. Meldrum promised to write each of the chief veterinary officers in those nations.

On Feb. 14, he wrote a letter to those officers in 25 countries. Records from the Phillips inquiry include an attached memo showing that he had written to "those countries which have imported ruminant based meat and bone meal from the United Kingdom."

Among the 25 jurisdictions was Canada. The others were: Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Nigeria, Thailand, South Africa, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, the U.S., Turkey, Kenya, Malta, Liberia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico, Curacao and Finland.

The inclusion of Canada in the mailing list now raises a question: Was this country importing MBM in 1990?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says Canada hasn't imported U.K. meat and bone meal since 1982. The British Agriculture Ministry, at the request of the Ottawa Citizen, has reviewed Customs data and says -- at least from 1988 to 1996 -- there were no exports of MBM to Canada.

However, if so, why would Britain send an advisory letter to Canada eight years after it stopped importing MBM? Oliver Catterlome, spokesman for the British Agriculture Ministry, did not know. In Canada, CFIA senior official Dr. Brian Evans says he believes the letter "was a precautionary measure."

Nonetheless, a week after Mr. Meldrum's letter was written in 1990, officials in Britain's Health Department once again complained the precaution was insufficient.

Dr. Pickles wrote the office of her boss, Sir Donald, urging him to continue pushing for an export ban. Several EC countries were neither banning imports of MBM nor ensuring it wasn't fed to cows, she wrote.

"Our view remains that restricting exports would be the right course of action," wrote Dr. Pickles.

On Feb. 22, 1990, Sir Donald met with senior officials from the Health and Agriculture departments. Mr. Meldrum was there. He said he had written to other nations and told them the U.K. had imposed a ruminant-to-ruminant feeding ban on MBM and "importing countries must make their own decisions."

Four days after that, Sir Donald 's office wrote back to Ms. Pickles. Her draft letter urging an export ban was no longer needed, she was told. The issue had been discussed at the Feb. 22 meeting and so Sir Donald had "therefore decided not to pursue this question."

The case was closed. The exports continued. And mad-cow disease became an even bigger problem for the world.

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