ANOTHER VIEW; Mad cows and ministries

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More than five years ago I demanded that the control of BSE and its frightening potential to decimate the human population was through slaughter of all infected cattle herds. This proposal was based on the inability to identify which animals were infected but not yet ill, the steep rise in the incidence of the disease and the dependence of the human population on dairy products and the remains of the old cow processed into foods as diverse as burgers, soups, stocks, sausages and also gelatine, used widely in medicine and many sweets.

Action was not taken then because it was too expensive. By 1993, the cost was estimated at pounds 30bn by the editor of Nature. Now we apparently cannot afford to take action, and yet we cannot afford not to. Surely the cost of cleaning up our cattle should take priority over tax cuts.

Instead, the ministries have orchestrated a campaign of deception, misinformation and manipulation of cowardly scientists.

The first lie was the claim that BSE was caused by sheep scrapie, a claim made to reassure the public because it is accepted that humans are barely vulnerable to scrapie; so we would also be immune to BSE. But scrapie did not cause BSE. Rather, BSE is a cattle disease in its own right, and now established as a cause of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans.

Then, just as a precaution, various risky organs were removed from cattle at slaughter. These were the organs of little commercial value and did not include, for example, liver, bones or nerves.

But is it not insane deliberately to manipulate infected organs? Surely the whole animal is infectious? Not if you believe the Ministry of Agriculture.

In its experiments, tiny amounts of various organs have been injected into a breed of mouse hardly vulnerable to BSE. Conveniently, some may think, the only infectivity was found in the brain.

In 1990, the ministry might have hoped its failure to act would not have been rumbled until well into the next century. But infected farmers with BSE herds, and teenagers, in addition to many of our domestic cats and zoo animals, all attest to the exceptional infectivity of BSE and the total failure of the Government to protect the public.

We still live in a class-ridden society. The top class is the Government and the meat industry. The bottom, or experimental class, is the already infected consumer (ie, most of us) waiting for the terminal dementia, beginning as early as the teens, with no diagnostic test, no vaccine and no treatment.

The writer is professor of clinical microbiology at Leeds University.

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