Mad Cow Madness
Well, it seems like the expected vCJD pandemic will never materialize
. In case you haven't been following the story, in the mid-late 80s a lot of British people, like students (like me) ate cheap meat (including brain and spinal cord tissue) from cows that had been fed meal that included other cow remains (like ground up bone). It appears that this feeding method helped transmit BSE or "mad cow disease." Initially, scientists believed that BSE and diseases like it could not pass the species barrier and infect other species, so the humans who had eaten the cheap meat were safe. Then some people started dying horribly of a human spongiform encephalopathy, called Creuzfedlt-Jakob Disease. Doctors decided this was a variant of the already known disease because it had slightly diffferent characteristics, and so it became known as vCJD. The method of transmission of this disease is still unknown.
In the early 90s, scientists decided that they did not have enough evidence to be as sure as they could be that beef was safe. Stephen Dorrell, as Health Secretary, therefore announced this to the nation. The reaction was worse than even the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) expected. Public confidence in British beef was shattered, and sales plummeted, despite the fact that feeding methods had changed. In the Department of Transport staff "restaurant," for example, it became impossible to get beef for about 6 months (I continued asking for it, of course). Drastic action was decided on to restore public confidence and a program of mass slaughter began aimed at eliminating BSE from the national herd. This cost the government billions. As a colleague of mine on rail privatization commented, "We privatized electricity to finance tax cuts. We're privatizing Railtrack to pay for a barbecue."
But the economic disaster was not the only negative consequence. Public confidence in Government scientists was shattered too. Once the possibility of transmissable vCJD had been established, the modelers got to work. If anyone who had eaten brain-related tissue in the 80s was at risk of exposure, then potentially millions could have been exposed to a horrible brain-eating disease for which there was (and still is) no cure. This, unsurprisingly, made headlines. The basic line of thinking among the public was, "They told us we were safe, now they say we're all going to die in agony. How could they be so wrong? They're either incompetent or evil." This attitude is at the root of current British luddism about GM foods, among other things.
Yet those apocalyptic models all depended on the incubation period of the disease. The shorter the incubation period, the more people would die. As time dragged on, however, and the exponential upturn in vCJD never materialized, the models got more conservative. Now it looks as if they were just plain wrong.
The disasters for british agriculture and science all depend on that putative link between BSE and vCJD. I think it is time to take seriously other possible explanations. One convincing theory, advanced by Scottish scientist George Venters, is that vCJD doesn't actually exist, being a misdiagnosis of the original Creuzfeldt disease (see Brendan O'Neill's excellent Spiked article on this theory here
It seems that this is one area where scientists' natural caution has cost the country dear. I happen to think that the BSE crisis contributed as much as the ERM debacle to painting the Conservative party as incompetent, and so it cost the Tories dear as well. Dorrell could do little. A leak that the government was covering up a potentially horrendous health risk could have been even more damaging. But what should have been done was to put the potential risk in its proper context. As long as very few people were dying, this should have been spelled out: "We don't know enough about this disease yet to say that there's a real public health risk. Very few people have died -- more people die from being struck by lightning every year (or something like that). We're keeping an eye on the situation, but it would be silly to panic." Yet that wasn't the message that got out, and I don't think it's the message anyone tried to deliver.
In case anyone accuses me of 20/20 hindsight, I should add that I continued to eat British beef whenever I could get it throughout the panic. I felt at the time that the reaction was hysterical. Unfortunately, no-one in power seems willing to admit that yet.