The birth of BSE

We made cannibals of cows a long time ago, so what exactly triggered today's horror story? Mark Watts reports

Mark Watts
Sunday 31 March 1996 00:02 GMT

SEVENTY-three years ago, in a lecture he gave in the small Swiss town of Dornach, Rudolf Steiner posed the question: "What would happen if the ox were to eat meat directly instead of plants?"

The philosopher and teacher, who was also an early advocate of organic farming, propounded to his audience his theory about unused energy in the animal's body and the consequent build-up of harmful acids. By modern standards this might not count as good science, but Steiner's conclusion on that day in 1923 remains prophetic, for he argued that eventually these harmful acids would attack the nervous system and the brain of the host animal. "If an ox were to consume meat directly," he declared, "the ox would go crazy."

The practice of feeding animal materials to cattle, and particularly materials carrying the sheep disease scrapie, is widely believed to lie at the root of the current crisis over BSE, or mad cow disease. The modern theory is that an abnormal protein called a prion passed, by this route, from one species to another, and the fear is that it may now, through beef, be attacking humans.

In the alarm over this, the public has been shocked by the discovery that cattle have been fed animal products, thus turning natural herbivores into carnivores. Even more shock has been caused by the discovery that cattle have been fed products from the slaughter of other cattle, thus making them not just carnivores but cannibals.

Over the past fortnight correspondents to the newspapers and callers on phone-ins have queued up to denounce this practice, and many have added a simple observation: if farmers and the food industry are prepared to do something so unnatural, it is no wonder that a terrible disease should result.

This is the same gut reaction as Steiner's - feeding meat products to animals offends against nature. So how did it begin? When and why did we cross the ethical threshold? And if BSE is a judgement on us, how did it start?

FARMERS have been feeding their cattle the remains of other animals since long before the era of intensive farming. Even before Steiner issued his warning, it had been going on for many years.

"The practice has been going on in the UK since before the turn of this century," says Chris Ashworth, an adviser to the Licensed Animal Slaughterers and Salvage Association. "The farming industry doesn't waste resources. One of the things that the farming community is conscious of is not causing waste that itself becomes a problem."

He explained how it was done: "The traditional farmer in the 1800s would have stripped the carcass down, removing the flesh for human consumption. He would boil the material and take away the fat and tallow, a heavy fat used for household goods such as candles.

"It would have been so boiled down that it would have been sterilised and would have borne little resemblance to the original matter. That can be done for the entire carcass, except the skin.

"After boiling it down, you are left with a lump of material which would have been broken down with a crusher. This protein meal would be added to the meal fed to farm animals."

Just how far back this goes no one knows. As a National Farmers' Union official put it, it had been going on "since time immemorial". They did it because it was a high-quality source of protein and, because it was a waste product, it was relatively cheap.

But in the 20th century the frugal practices of the traditional farmer gradually became something quite different. A small-scale activity carried out on the farm turned into an industrial process.

Mike Evans of the Agricultural Suppliers' Trade Association believes that animal feed merchants have been supplying food compounds supplemented with animal proteins, notably bone meal, to the pig and poultry trade since about 1920. This was extended to sheep and cattle in 1930. Farmers and the feed industry do not seem to have questioned the ethics of this, presumably because it was no different in principle from what farmers had always done on a more modest scale.

The practice accelerated steadily, most notably during the war, when Britain suddenly and desperately needed to increase its self-sufficiency in food.

Harash Narang, one of the experts who first raised the alarm about the dangers of BSE, describes what happened in a scientific paper to be published tomorrow in the New York Journal of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. "In order to maximise production of beef, calves and milk during the Second World War," he writes, "cattle were fed cheap high-protein, chiefly abattoir waste, including sheep brains, processed into meal."

After the peace, there was no let-up, for the age of intensive farming had dawned and the protein supplements offered an opportunity for accelerating the growth of young calves that was too good to resist. They were incorporated in ready-made feeds supplied by large-scale manufacturers and they were available separately by the bag, so that farmers could add as much as they liked to the feed.

As Dr Narang writes, the doses rose steadily. "The total increase from 1960 to 1980 in the amount of compound feed per cow would have been, at maximum, about 50 per cent, resulting in a lot more animal protein being fed to cows and a lot more milk being produced." In all, from the age of two weeks to six months, a typical calf would be fed about 12kg of remnants of ruminants, he writes.

It was during a visit to an abattoir in the early 1970s that Dr Narang first realised what was going on. "I was astonished," he said. "We were actually recycling cattle to cattle. To me it's cannibalism. And that was a big mistake."

Intensive agriculture has been controversial from the start, raising questions about cruelty and about the health implications of what had become known as "factory farming". It was as part of this debate that the practice of feeding animal waste to animals finally came under scrutiny.

Some farmers were concerned. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, the group at the forefront of organic farming, said: "We looked at this closely in the early 1980s. We came to the conclusion that it would be inappropriate. We weren't acting on science. It was a combination of instinct and informed knowledge. Most of us were farmers, we had some knowledge of what cows ate, we'd worked with cows.

"There were three aspects to the decision. One was what the consumers would expect from organic production. One was what was physiologically appropriate for cows. The last point was the concept that feeding meat to a herbivorous animal was somehow against nature. It didn't feel right."

Mr Holden says: "If the Government had listened to what we were saying then, of course, we wouldn't have BSE." And, he suggested, the public would have been amazed at the practice - if they had been aware of it.

It is a striking feature of this affair that many farmers did not know what they were feeding their livestock. Much of the feed came ready-made from suppliers, and as Phil Archer, the patriarch in BBC Radio's everyday story of country folk, complained last week, it just said "protein" on the bags.

THE animal feed industry is highly competitive, with narrow profit margins, and producers guard their recipes jealously. Until recently they were reluctant to give anything more than the barest details of the contents of their products on packaging. As a result, even the most careful organic farmers were misled. Kevin Taylor, assistant chief veterinary officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, told a conference in Leeds yesterday that BSE was just as prevalent on organic farms as on others, probably because farmers have been unknowingly feeding infected animal protein to their herds.

It was only the advent of BSE that brought all this out in the open. But why, if cows have been fed animal waste materials for more than a century, do we now suddenly have this disease? What changed?

It was in 1988, following a recommendation of the Southwood report on the implications of BSE, that the Government banned the feeding of ruminants to other ruminants. The report was categorical about the source of the disease: "This problem has arisen as a result of the practice of feeding ruminant materials to herbivores, which are thus exposed to infective risks against which they have not evolved any defences. Such practices are a feature of modern intensive agriculture, but inevitably ... they open up new pathways for infection to the farmed animals and potentially from them to man."

Cows initially contracted BSE after eating sheep with scrapie, according to the report. BSE then spread, it said, when cattle ate infected bovine products. Yet as we have seen, ruminants eating ruminants was not new. The trigger for the outbreak of BSE was a change in the way the meat products fed to cattle were processed, or "rendered" by the animal feed industry.

Sir Richard Southwood, who headed the 1988 working party, explained last week: "During the 1970s this practice took place, but the rendering at that time was done by a process which involved hydrocarbon solvents, and involved long periods at high temperatures. At that time, it didn't appear to cause diseases."

But the use of solvents and high temperatures in rendering of animal remnants was phased out in the early 1980s - Dr Narang says it was for reasons of cost - and there is widespread agreement that these changes caused BSE to spread in cattle.

Another report to the Government, this time from the Expert Group on Animal Feedingstuffs in 1992, declared that these changes "combined to allow sufficient infective dose of the scrapie agent to survive the rendering process and cause infection in cattle".

There had been warnings. An alarm bell had been rung back in 1979 by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which said: "The major problem encountered in this recycling process is the risk of transmitting disease-bearing pathogens to stock and thence to humans."

And the issue had caught the eye of the Labour government of the time, according to David Clark, Labour's former agriculture spokesman, and present shadow defence secretary. Mr Clark has said that regulations on cattle feed drawn up by his party in government in 1978 were subsequently dropped by the Thatcher administration.

Sir Richard Southwood blames the "era of deregulation" for causing the spread of BSE. "I don't think any deep thought was given to what was happening," he said. "The milk was spilt, if I can use a crude and perhaps inappropriate analogy. What we want to know is who was the cat who knocked the jug over in the first place. And why was the jug near the end of the table?"

He recalls that when the ban on the use of ruminants in ruminant feed was finally imposed in 1988, it was not without protest. "We immediately advised the Government to bring it in permanently, and indeed they accepted our advice in the face of opposition from industry."

As the Government has now conceded, this may well have been too late to prevent the loss of human life - millions of us may have eaten infected beef. And it is not just us. If it is true that infected meal is the root of the disease, then British-made feed incorporating animal materials could have spread it internationally.

This seems the likeliest explanation for what has happened in Switzerland, which, with 205 BSE cases, is the worst-hit country after Britain. The Swiss have imported hardly any living cattle from Great Britain; they have a small, scrapie-free sheep population and their feed industry uses high temperatures in rendering animal wastes. But 22 per cent of all meat and bone meal concentrate foodstuff imported by Switzerland between 1985 and 1990 came from Britain. It looks like the smoking gun.

Despite Steiner's warning, then, it seems that it is not because we have fed animal products to herbivores and turned cows into cannibals that we have this mess. There is nothing new nor especially British about the practice, even if most people and some farmers have only just found out about it. The long history of the practice strongly suggests that it is not intrinsically dangerous.

We have BSE now because we ceased to process these animal products with sufficient care. Is it therefore a purely technical issue, rather than an ethical one? Sir Richard Southwood, who has monitored these issues closely, links the two. "When you are doing something unnatural and peculiar," he says, "you've got to be particularly careful."

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