Market liberalisation could spread mad cow risk: UN official

Market liberalisation could spread mad cow risk: UN official

June 11, 2001, Agence France Presse

Globalisation and deregulation could spur the spread of mad cow disease, a UN official warned here Monday at the start of a four-day round table on the crisis.

Samuel Jutzi, director of the Food and Agricultural Organisation's (FAO) animal production and health division, warned of "a serious mismatch between free-market economics and biology" and suggested "more stringent market regulation" was the answer.

"Animal agriculture in Europe has never before been faced by a similar vote of distrust from the consumers and the society at large," Jutzi said.

"In fact, to state it bluntly, the industry, throughout its various stages and levels, has been largely discredited in the eyes of the consumers... It requires courageous and unprecedented action by those in charge of setting and enforcing policies and by the industry itself."

The talks gather several dozen scientists, veterinarians and policymakers under the aegis of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the FAO and Office Internationale des Epizooties (OIE), a Paris-based agency that deals with disease outbreaks in farm animals.

Their task is to pool knowledge about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), as mad cow disease is known, as well as the likely extent of its human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

They are also to make recommendations about how to prevent the spread of BSE to developing countries, where controls on food hygiene are less firmly enforced.

Britain, the seat of the outbreak, has been blamed for spreading BSE to continental Europe -- and possibly elsewhere -- through contaminated cattle feed. Lax hygiene controls but also liberalised commerce in farm products helped this material to slip through the net.

BSE is an ailment in which a rogue protein proliferates like wildfire in the cow's brain. Its human equivalent, vCJD, is caught by eating BSE-infected beef, doctors believe.

Both conditions are fatal. There are currently no treatment or vaccination for them. The official toll for the human form stands at 105 -- 101 in Britain, three in France and one in Ireland, a person who had lived for a long time in the United Kingdom.

On Saturday, the Hong Kong authorities said they believed that a 34-year-old woman, who also had lived for years in Britain, may have contracted vCJD.

Much remains to be understood about so-called prion diseases, notably how they are transmitted and whether there is a genetic susceptibility to them, and how long they take to incubate.

"Never before in history has a health event of animal origin given rise to so many debates, controversies and economic and social upheavals within and outside the agricultural world," said OIE Director General Bernard Vallat.

But he pointed out that BSE, so far as is known, has affected fewer than 200,000 cattle over the past 15 years, when the disease first became known, compared with a global livestock population of 1.5 billion head.

In addition, the latest available data "indicate that the impact on humans is far lower than that caused by major zoonoses," such as rabies and tuberculosis, he said.

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