The Cow that Came Home to Roost

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Non-stories are common in the media around the holidays.  Last year, we all laughed at the bizarre Raelian cult and their claims of human cloning.  This year, however, we have seen a genuine panic over the first detected case of Mad Cow disease in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States.  Other countries have banned American beef imports and the price of beef has dropped 15 cents per pound.  Yet the reaction has been out of all proportion to the actual risk.  It is hard to say which is worse for the country: an outbreak of Mad Cow disease or an outbreak of mad politician disease—whose symptoms include policies that make politicians seem engaged, please special interests, but do no good and may even do harm.


The nature of Mad Cow disease—bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE—is still not entirely certain.  It is a brain-wasting disease that reached epidemic proportions in Britain in the 1980s.  There are similar diseases in other species, such as scrapie, a disease that affects sheep and that has been known for centuries.  The human equivalent, Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) is very rare.  It was believed that these diseases could not infect other species (scrapie never affected humans as far as we know); although they could be spread by eating infected brains or spinal tissues from the same species (human cannibalism can cause a version of CJD called Kuru).  In the late 1980s, the British government banned cattle feed containing meat from infected cows, which contributed to the rapid spread of BSE there. 


In the early 1990s, however, British scientists began to suspect that a number of unusual CJD cases indicated that BSE had jumped the species barrier and infected humans.  The new disease, called vCJD (the v stands for variant), affected younger people than usual and it was suggested that a form of folded protein called a prion was the infecting agent (this has not yet been proved, although it remains the most plausible suggestion).  When the government announced that it could no longer be sure eating beef would not cause vCJD, the reaction was, for the British beef industry, apocalyptic.  The public became terrified of British beef, which disappeared from menus around the country.  In an attempt to halt the industry’s collapse, the government ordered the slaughter of all cattle that could have possibly eaten the infected feed.  The slaughter cost the nation several billion pounds, in addition to lost trade as other countries eagerly erected trade barriers to keep out the superior British beef (France still bans British beef, despite the European Union ruling this illegal).


But now evidence is mounting that this reaction was unwarranted.  Although vCJD is a horrible disease, invariably fatal, the death toll to date is hardly staggering: 143 people in the UK, and a few more elsewhere.  When people first started dying from the disease, scientists constructed models that suggested that 100,000 or more could die.  As researchers have acquired more information about the incubation period of the disease and the genetic characteristics of victims—40 percent, not all, of the British population seem susceptible—they have revised that number downwards again and again.  The latest projections from the same scientists suggest that about 40 more people are likely to die.


Governments know this.  The risk of dying from eating infected beef is small, even when the disease is an epidemic among cattle.  When only one or two cows are infected on a continent, the risk is practically zero.  But politics often trumps common sense.


Politicians the world over have been quick to exploit the U.S. Mad Cow outbreak for political gain, currying favor with local cattle interests by banning beef imports, while claiming that they are safeguarding their citizens’ health.  But trade restrictions harm everybody.  In this case, consumers in foreign nations lose access to cheap, safe meat of good quality and see domestic prices rise as a result, while U.S. producers lose access to overseas markets and see internal production suffer, shrinking the whole economy as a result.


Because the risk of Mad Cow is negligible, bans on U.S. beef are likely to do a lot of economic harm and no public health good.  But we’ve seen this pattern before.  The United States banned Canadian beef in response to Canada’s own outbreak in May 2003 after having banned British cattle imports during the outbreak there.  Interestingly, Canada is the only country that has reacted proportionately to the American news, basing its decisions on science rather than on panic or opportunism.  But for the rest of the world, the cow has come home to roost.