..... Converting grass-eating cows into cannibalistic carnivores by feeding them meat and bone meal (which contained BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, pathogens) amplified mad cow disease into epidemic proportions in Britain. More than 180,000 cases have been detected there. Some scientists believe nearly a million cows with the disease were eaten.
So far, 91 people - 87 in Britain, three in France and one in Ireland - are known to have contracted a related, fatal neurological affliction called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Some scientists fear these few victims may be the vanguard of an epidemic that could take hundreds of thousands of lives.
Britain has culled about 4.8 million head of cattle and banned all use of meat and bone meal since 1996, when the link between mad-cow disease and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was definitively established. The rest of the European Union continued use of the meal for feeding poultry, pigs and fish, ignoring Britain's experience that when any of the material was in circulation, some inadvertently or criminally, ended up in cattle feed.
"We have quite compelling evidence that even tiny residues of meat and bone meal in the machinery at feed mills or on the bottom of trucks can cause a problem," said Peter Hardwick, international manager of Britain's Meat and Livestock Commission. "So the best thing is to remove it completely, not to allow it in the food chain." According to the Ministry of Agriculture in London, only one case of BSE has been reported in a cow born after the 1996 ban on meal, although Britain is still reporting about 30 cases a week among cows born before that date.
Other EU countries failed to adopt such radical measures until now, partly because of the cost of slaughtering millions of cattle. EU critics contend that lends some justification to consumer complaints that the European Commission puts the interests of the agriculture industry ahead of public health. Europe produces 3 million tons of meat and bone meal a year, and until recently it was selling for 130 euros a ton. Replacing it will mean importing more soybeans, perhaps genetically modified, from the United States and Brazil. Getting rid of the existing stockpile will cost at least 3 billion euros, according to Franz Fischler, the EU commissioner for agriculture. If the six-month suspension is made permanent, the EU will have to build special incinerators to safely dispose of the slaughtered animals that were used to make the feed.
The EU will also have to spend hundreds of millions of euros more in destroying or testing older cattle, but Mr. Fischler said the huge expense was necessary "if we don't want to lose our market altogether." Beef prices have fallen an average of 17 percent across Europe since the crisis erupted in October.
Mr. Byrne said he had called for the suspension of meat and bone meal with "great reluctance" because the scientific need was not proven and it would not have been necessary had governments imposed existing controls with greater rigor. But he acknowledged that the public clearly sees a link between the meal and mad cow disease.
The public reaction to this material is symptomatic of growing distaste with intensive industrial farming methods that include allowing spillover sewage and chicken fecal matter in the slops fed to animals. There is little wonder that Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, identifies food safety as one of the commission's priority tasks. But an EU food agency will not be in place before 2002, and it will lack the teeth of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Governments will still be in charge of enforcing the rules.
Meat and bone meal was first produced by the Swift Co. in Chicago around the turn of the century. In "The Jungle," his novel about Chicago slaughter-houses and rendering plants, Upton Sinclair described this as "the 'tankage,' the mass of brown, stringy stuff that was left after the waste portions of the carcasses had had the lard and tallow dried out of them."
At first, it was used as a fertilizer, but Britain started to feed it to animals in World War II when it became impossible to import vegetable protein and all the available farm land was needed to feed the human population. Only with the outbreak of BSE did most people become generally aware that grass-feeding animals had been turned into carnivores, and the disease became symbolic of an increasing distrust of industrialized farm methods.
A 16-volume official report on BSE in Britain shows that the public was misinformed, under informed and fed with soothing statements that had no scientific justification once the government became aware of the seriousness of the epidemic. That helps to explain why people have so little faith in public pronouncements today.
The British had no qualms about exporting meat and bone meal after banning
its use in cattle at home in 1988, with no questions asked about where
it was going or how it was used. One of the few officials to express concern,
although not in public, was the government's chief medical officer, Sir
Donald Acheson. "We are not being consistent in our attempts to contain
the risks" of mad cow disease, he wrote to the chief veterinary officer.
Sir Donald warned that Britain otherwise would "be seen in the future as
having been responsible for the introduction of BSE to the food chain in
other countries." The spread of BSE has broadly followed the patterns
of those exports, with Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland and France being
the most affected countries.