STATS Spotlight

Save the Mad Cow

by Howard Fienberg
September 1998

Aside from scattered scare stories, the debate over "mad cow" disease has been sidelined in the American media. But it's still alive and well in Britain, where the ongoing controversy over Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) nearly crippled the beef industry in 1996 and played a role in the ouster of John Major’s Conservative government. At issue is the alleged but unproven link between new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nv-CJD) and BSE.

In late August, evidence of the rogue protein associated with nv-CJD was discovered in the appendix of British coastguard Tony Barrett. What kept Tony from becoming just another statistic (one of 27 confirmed nv-CJD deaths) was the fact that his appendix had been removed eight months before he displayed symptoms of nv-CJD. Currently, the only way to confirm a case is following a patient’s death, when the brain tissue can be examined. This is the first time that the disease has been identified in any tissue prior to the onset of symptoms. The government plan is to run tests on thousands of appendixes and tonsils removed over the past two decades, comparing them to specimens from the 1970's (predating the BSE outbreak), to track patients who may develop the disease.

Also making headlines, the British government inquiry into BSE, begun in March and set to continue until March of 1999, is providing the occaisional distraction from the ongoing bio-engineered foods controversy.

Fueling further BSE controversy, British government BSE expert Professor Jeffrey Almond claimed recently that there was a "distinct possibility" that the disease existed among Britain’s flock of 42 million sheep. Although only nine sheep have been tested for the disease since 1996, it is believed that BSE could infect them. Science Minister Lord Sainsbury vowed that he would not give up on eating lamb, saying that the risk was still theoretical and scientific proof was required. However, firm evidence is believed to be several years away at best, since research is only now being stepped up. Still, it is likely that if any risk exists, it will come from mature sheep whose tissue would have acquired the BSE infection over many years. Since most are slaughtered in their first year, before they have time to become infectious, the risks may be minimal.

Scrapie in sheep, BSE in cows, nv-CJD in humans--now "mad horse" disease? Dr. Oliver Planz recently reported in the medical journal Lancet that genetic material from an equine blood virus was found in the blood of a psychiatric patient suffering from schizophrenia. The virus causes a fatal disorder known as borna disease. It has been under study for about 200 years in Germany; now, some have begun to question if it is linked to human psychiatric and neurological disorders. Dr. Planz stressed that the discovery did not prove that mad horse disease caused human disorders. However, since, unlike mad cow, mad horse would not need to be transmitted through the consumption of infected flesh, it could be picked up through close contact with live animals.

On the lighter side, BSE, while sparking "beef wars" in Europe, has also sparked humorous trans-Atlantic sparring. As reported by Canada’s This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes, Canadians were forced to respond to a damaging anti-sealing ad aired on an electronic billboard in London’s Picadilly Circus, which depicted a seal bleeding into a Canadian flag. The canucks’ response, aired later on the same billboard, read: "Save the Mad Cow... But Get Her Face Off Our Money."

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