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Howard's End: Foraging For BSE Free Alternatives

Following the BSE mad cow scare in Europe, Germans are panicking over meat alternatives as first beef, then sausage, and now pork, is off the menu after officials discovered last week that millions of Bavarian pigs have for years been fattened with the help of illegal drugs. And in the US, the FDA Thursday, quarantined some Texas beef on suspicion that feed safeguards against BSE had been violated. John Howard writes.

The British newspaper The Independent, reported Sunday that faced with empty shelves at supermarkets, Germans have taken to foraging for food with ducks and hens reported missing from zoo's and television channels scheduling special programmes every day in search of the elusive answer. But, so far, consumers have only learnt what they can't eat, rather than what they can.

The announcement last week that millions of Bavarian pigs were fed illegal drugs, including the type of steroids which enhance athletic performance, has meant that filling an empty stomach is becoming nearly impossible.

The German Parliament's canteen has apparently banned both beef and pork with its latest offering including cabbage stew, elk ragout and organic vegetarian cannelloni.

After the first scare last November shoppers switched to game meat. Now, the consumers are being informed that venison is also risky because captured deer in German forests are apparently fed on the same kind of bone-meal fodder that has bought mad cow disease to cattle.

Scientists warn that lamb is to be avoided because of scrapie and battery chickens come spiced with salmonella and occasionally dioxin. Cats and dogs, in case anyone should even think about it, are also off the menu because of the low grade beef they consume.

Exotic meats such as reindeer, ostrich, and crocodile are appearing in German shops with TV chefs trying to educate the masses away from greasy meats and stodgy vegetables.

That's what The Independent reported Sunday and if true, then the European food-scare problem is much larger than officials first thought.

On Saturday Reuters reported that some Texas cattle had been quarantined by the US Food and Drug Administration on suspicion over feed safeguards against mad cow disease. Health regulators said they had quarantined the cattle while they investigate whether a feed mill-grinder violated rules designed to prevent the spread of mad cow disease.

Amid the anxiety, shares in fast-food giant McDonalds have fallen more than 4 per cent and came on fears that an outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe could have spread to non-European countries. Shares of other restaurant companies dependent on the US beef supply also fell.

Many countries, including New Zealand, have already introduced strict border controls of imported beef and beef products from 30 European countries but, from my investigations, New Zealand has one of the safest, if not the safest, food supplies in the world.

What appears to be coming a frenzy, at least in Germany, must be starting to worry our beef and sheep exporters because people around the world might turn from beef and sheep eating permanently.

From a New Zealand beef and sheep-meat safety perspective there appears to be no sound basis for doing that, but when the public starts to panic perception often overtakes reality.

My investigations reveal the background to mad cow disease overwhelmingly points to massive bureaucratic incompetence - or worse. French investigative judges have now initiated a probe to determine if French, British or EU officials ought to be accused of voluntary homicide.

In September 1979 just four months after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, the Cabinet decided to set aside the1978 draft proposals for tightening animal feed standards. This continued until 1981 when the government signed the "Diseases of Animals (Protein Processing) Order" which effectively allowed the tainted feed practices to continue and expand.

It was straight free-trade dogma. The rendering and feed industry has the right to self-regulate. It must be free to use the least costly methods - low processing temperatures, low processing pressures and, consequently, lower fuel costs - and market forces must be free to decide what animals will eat.

Three factors forced conditions for a cross-species jump. 1. The large scale use in Britain of animal-feed protein for cattle including caracasses of dead sheep. 2 The already high incidence of scrapie among sheep as a result of the 1970's scrapie epedemic. Sheep that died were commonly disposed of by turning them into cattle feed. 3. The temperature of the heat treatment used to produce the animal-protein feed from sheep carcasses and other animal remains, was arbitrarily lowered evidently for cost-cutting reasons which failed to kill the infectious agents.

Given the data already known about the 1960's American research into a similar BSE disease in minks called TME, the danger of creating a scrapie-like disease in cows should have been well recognised.

Nevertheless, in 1984, the first few cases of a strange new scrapie-like illness began to appear among cows in Britain. In September 1985 the veterinarian Carol Richardson, investigating some of these cases, wrote a report in which she unambiguously identified the pathology of the new disease as belonging to the type spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow) otherwise typified by scrapie in sheep, CJD in humans and TME in minks.

For more than three years, the British government refused to take decisive action against the rapidly mounting evidence of BSE. Only in June 1989, when BSE cases had grown to over 7,000 cases per year, did the British government finally ban the use of animal protein feed for ruminants - but only on British territory.

June 1989 - Risk parts are banned from baby food in Britain November 1989 - Genral ban on human consumption in England and Wales January 1990 - General ban in Scotland March 1990 - Ban on risk parts to countries of EU July 1991 - Ban on exports to developing countries.

The Britain-only ban did not prevent British producers of animal-protein feed continuing to export the contaminated material and exports more than doubled. Exports were encouraged to compensate the lost market inside Britain. The main consumer of British animal-protein food in the EU at the time? - France.

In 1989 7,000 cases of BSE were reported in Britain - in 1990 13,000 - in 1991 25,000 and in 1992, the peak year, 37,000 cases of BSE were reported in Britain.

Yet the EU Commission, the policymaking body of the EU, waited five years until June 1994, to finally ban the use of animal-protein feed for cows. In the meantime the rate of new BSE cases in Britain had increased five fold and the first news appeared that young Britons had died from a variant CJD, never seen before.

The chain of events leading to hundreds of thousands of BSE-infected cattle and the human variant nCJD was set in motion by a series of specific decisions.

But the BSE scandal is only the tip of the iceberg of the epidemiological nightmare.

The vicious price competition in deregulated and globalised agricultural markets along with depressing farm prices below the real sustainable costs of production, has encouraged the spread of dangerous and irresponsible practices of cost-cutting in food production, drastically increasing the potential velocity of evolution and spread of microbial diseases in plants and animals across the planet.

The immunological barriers between species is breaking down encouraging the emergence of new disease by serial passage and species jumps.

In 1995 Paul Gallagher wrote, "How Venice Rigged the First, and Worst, Global Financial Collapse." He demonstrated how the 14th century Black Death pandemic in Europe, which wiped out between a third and half of the population, was itself the product of Venetian "financial globalisation" and looting policies.

The latest species jumps of a deadly neurological disease of sheep into cows, and then a second jump from cows into humans, is something many millions in the world will have to live with for decades. I'm glad I live in New Zealand.

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