Impact of BSE may take years to play out

September 30, 2001 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo) by Masaharu Asaba
The emergence of mad cow disease has sent shivers through the nation. The disease is a result of livestock industry practices that stress low cost and efficiency, and authorities' negligence when it comes to safety measures.

However, on another level, it is just desserts for human beings who, in their foolishness, have disturbed the natural order by forcing grass-eating cattle to feed on meat and bonemeal (MBM) to speed their growth.

Prions, the particles that cause mad cow disease, are not bacteria or viruses, but proteins that exist normally in animals and are, for as yet unknown reasons, pathogenic. Even though prions--proteinaceous infectious particles--are only one-1000th the size of a virus, they are resistant to inactivation and decomposition, even when boiled, heated or exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Brains infected with prion diseases--which include mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE--display spongelike cavities. Television images have shown the pathetic sight of BSE-infected cattle struggling to stand on their feet or thrashing about in their death throes.

Mad cow disease wreaked havoc in Britain in the 1980s, when low-cost, high-protein MBM replaced grains as cattle feed. It is possible that internal organs and bones from BSE-infected cattle found their way into MBM.

One tribe in New Guinea was known to have contracted kuru, a disease with symptoms similar to those of mad cow disease, from a tradition of holding memorial services for deceased relatives that involved eating their bodies, including their brains. Kuru has been almost completely eradicated, however.

Forcing similar cannibalistic practices on cattle by feeding them MBM is a major blunder by the livestock industry and runs counter to natural laws.

According to European Union statistics, more than 300 tons of MBM was exported to Japan in the early 1990s, but Japan has no record of any such imports.

Following the first British panic over mad cow disease in 1996, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Ministry called for the voluntary restriction of MBM imports.

However, since the current turmoil is believed to have been caused by BSE-infected feed imported before the restriction, it is necessary to make every effort to determine exactly how much was imported, where it was sold, and where it was consumed.

No government official can avoid charges of irresponsibility. In autumn 1996, the British government announced it had completely eradicated mad cow disease, even though it had not run thoroughgoing inspections. In a vivid reminder that the disease has an incubation period of about 10 years, all of Europe was plunged into a BSE-induced panic in autumn 2000. Because of its earlier cover-up, the British government had to spend 100 billion yen to deal with the disease. In Germany, cabinet ministers were held responsible and forced to step down.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Ministry also underestimated the disease. After it announced it had burned carcass of the BSE-infected cow that originally had caused the stir, the news broke that it had in fact been processed into MBM for chickens and pigs. The ministry has yet to take responsible for the blunder, which was a clear violation of rules.

One wonders why the United States, a major agricultural nation, has not been affected by the disease, despite the turmoil in Europe and Japan.

The U.S. government has stated that instead of powdered cattle bone, American farmers use beans to feed cattle, but this statement should not be taken at face value.

Some observers have pointed out that people with the human form of BSE may mistakenly have been included in the more than 4 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease. We should keep an eye on U.S. developments.

Starting in January 2001, Japan began banning cattle-protein products from Europe. Many products made with cattle bone marrow that may be unsafe are still on the market. Gelatin, which is made from bone marrow, is an ingredient in candies. Parts of placentas have been used to make skin whiteners. Internal organs are used in the manufacture of anti-inflammatory agents and dura mater is used in neurosurgery.

Primary schools have begun removing beef from their school meals. It is hard to know what we should eat and how we should adapt our lifestyles. Low-priced hamburgers and beef bowls that use beef from the United States and Australia are said to be safe, but it is advisable not to consume them for the time being.

The incubation period for mad cow disease ranges from several to more than 10 years, and some experts predict that the incidence of new cases of vCJD will peak in about 2015. The day of reckoning will come as a rude shock for those who repeatedly violate the rules. People must exercise every caution in protecting themselves.

(Asaba is a senior editor of The Yomiuri Shimbun.)

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