Culling science to sell beef

  • 29/04/1996

THE almost month-long European hysteria over British beef being infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or what is now popularly called the Mad Cow Disease, has global implications far too profound and as scary as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Never before in history has one disease raised so many issues at once: national food habits and. health problems the onus of both protecting consumer interests and saving an industry, the public's access to scientific information, marketing issues like eco-labelling and brand- names, methods of intensive farming and tampering with nature, vegetarianism and organic farming and, not least of all, the whole concept of a common continental identity, the European Union... The spread is too wide, too awesome. And no country can ignore the issue. Neither BSE, nor the black practices that led to the present crisis are specific to Britain. They are specific, however, to countries where rightist, anti- environmental regimes rule.

The European Union has now decided that millions of cows will have to be culled, and Britain has reluctantly agreed, after being promised compensation. Several issues have emerged from these goings on. What is the scientific basis of such a huge-scale culling? Is it right to kill cattle on mere suspicion, asked a participant in the BBC programme, Question Time, in the last week of March. On the other hand, does one have to wait for scientific evidence linking BSE with Cruetzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) before ordering culling? Tony Newton, the leader of the House of Commons, asserted(that the government had urgently asked the House's scientific advisory committee on spongiform encephalopathy to look into the extent of the problem and suggest remedies. But his statement, "We have done everything to ensure the safety of British beef', really clouded the issues. And the issues were: Why did the, government scientific not act on evidence which had come as long back as 1988-89? Why did the government not include all shades of scientific opinion in dealing with a problem of this scale? And why did the government skirt the issue that the root of the problem is the Thatcherite deregularisation of the economy, which had Jed to cows being fed animal protein from sheep infected with scrapie through much of the '180s, in the avaricious race for faster and larger profits?

What emerged as answers have ruined the image of British democracy and its scientific establishment. In 1990 Harsh Narang, an internationally recognised spongiform expert had told the House agriculture select committee that humans could contract CJD through eating BSE-infected beef Earlier, Narang had developed a same-day urine test for BSE infection in cows. This was a breakthrough, since the agricultural ministry's presently available tests could be conducted only on slaughtered cows. But this test scared the farmer lobby, and the ministry neglected it. Narang had applied for funds to research his test from the ministry. That sealed his fate. He now says the ministry suddenly saw an abyss open at their feet. For, if he conducted random tests from heads collected from the abattoirs, the true proportion of cattle infected with BSE, but already heading for the market would become apparent. So, for a long time, despite clear indications of widespread contamination, British beef was allowed to be marketed in Europe. The extent of the damage to come in future is beyond calculation. Narang was not only denied funds, but over the next several months, he now says his car tyres were slashed five, times, his brakes tampered with and his house broken into and ransacked and research documents rifled through. Mark Purdey, an amateur scientist also on the wrong side of official opinion, has even more scary tales of harassment to tell.

Reminds us of a certain monster named Adolf Hitler. The government, therefore, was hell bent on protecting the farmers lobby at any cost. It was not willing to take a stand on the slaughtering on its own, and got the scientific community to do so. But none of the statements came from the scientists themselves: they were all announced by politicians on the floor of the House. And one after another, commentators have blamed politicians of misusing scientists, to the extent that now the acceptance by the public of scientific opinion has suffered gravely.

The other issue that has to be discussed urgently at all global for a is just how much tampering with nature can be allowed. Feeding herbivores with animal protein is not been' in nature's design. Cattle have hybridised. This is pushing past nature's boundaries. But the overriding concern has been profit. As one commentator says, "Rightist ideology puts short-term commercial interests above long-term environmental and health concerns. The government denied its own ecological responsibilities and sought to privatise environmental risks by transferring responsibility to the market."

The writing on the wall is quite legible now. The problem is not limited to Britain. The world needs to draw the right lessons. Science cannot be made the - handmaid of politicians and business lobbies. And the people should demand and be allowed to access scientific answers to environmental and health issue at all times.