8 Managing the BSE/vCJD episode up to May 1990
BSE was formally recognised as a new disease in November 1986. However, this information was kept under 'embargo' at first while an initial epidemiological study - involving the collection of data from 200 herds - was started. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was officially informed about BSE by the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) in June 1987. By December 1987, those responsible for analysing the data from the initial epidemiological study had concluded that the only viable hypothesis for the cause of BSE was contamination of MBM derived from ruminant animals. In early 1988, officials started to check with individual producers of cattle concentrates what had been included in the MBM they had used; their responses provided further confirmation of the MBM hypothesis. From June 1988, BSE was made a notifiable disease (i.e. a disease that by law must be reported to the authorities) and cows suspected of having BSE had to be isolated when calving. From July, the sale, supply and use of feed for ruminants that contained protein (except milk) derived from ruminants were prohibited until the end of 1988. This is known as the ruminant feed ban. [C D]
Do you think this was an adequate initial response to BSE? [R D]
Given the relatively novel nature of BSE - and refraining from hindsight - it is difficult to see what further precautionary measures ought to have been introduced at this stage to reduce risk. Within about 12 months of MAFF being officially informed of an entirely new disease, arrangements had been made that should have ensured all cases of BSE were recorded and BSE's most likely transmission route to other cattle closed off (albeit temporarily, in the first instance). Even the delay of about six months between BSE being recognised as a new disease and government ministers being informed is understandable given that officials needed time to assess the magnitude of the problem and politicians and officials usually have more pressing matters to consider than a new disease in cattle that at the time did not seem to pose any risks to human health.
Cases of BSE in the UK continued to rise (Figure 1) and it was therefore announced in April 1988 that a Working Party, chaired by Professor Richard Southwood of Oxford University, would investigate BSE. The Southwood Working Party, which held its first meeting in June 1988, welcomed the ruminant feed ban and also recommended that affected cattle should be destroyed. In August 1988, Orders came into effect implementing the recommended slaughter policy and authorising compensation to be paid at 50% for confirmed cases of BSE and 100% for slaughtered cattle that turned out not to have BSE.
What were the likely consequences of such differential compensation? [E D]
Because farmers would be given only 50% compensation for confirmed cases of BSE, it would not be surprising if some BSE-affected cattle were passed off as healthy and entered the human food chain before their symptoms became obvious to those not familiar with the temperaments of individual animals.
Because of this possibility, full compensation for affected animals was eventually paid from February 1990.
Particularly after confirmation in March 1996 that BSE was probably the cause of vCJD (Section 1.5), differences in the early days of BSE between Southwood on the one hand and officials and politicians on the other started to emerge. For instance, Southwood claimed that he advised on full compensation right from the start but that MAFF would not allow this in order to save money. However, officials and politicians maintained that the recommendations of scientists were always implemented; but how quickly and willingly? Was some of Southwood's advice influenced by what he thought would be politically acceptable? It must be borne in mind that there was considerable uncertainty at this time as to the magnitude and seriousness of the BSE problem. Moreover, all concerned would have been acutely aware of the possible adverse economic consequences of their decision making for large numbers of people dependent on the agriculture and food industries. This highlights some of the challenges of taking precautionary measures. Decision makers often have to make judgements in the light of competing factors. [R E D]
In November 1988, as a further precaution, the Southwood Working Party advised that milk from infected cattle should be destroyed. It also recommended extension of the ruminant feed ban. This was first extended to the end of 1989 and then the time limitation was removed completely. [D]
In February 1989, both the Southwood Report and the government's response to it were published. The government accepted all the recommendations in the report, including establishment of the Tyrrell Committee on scientific research into BSE. Ministers received the Tyrrell Report in June 1989 and it was published - together with the government's response to it - in January 1990. All top and medium priority research projects recommended by Tyrrell were approved. It was emphasised at the time that the six-month delay in publication was related to making arrangements for the various projects to be properly funded and that the research itself had not been delayed. BSE (and TSEs more generally) thus became a major area for new research funding. [C D]
In June 1989, it was announced that specified bovine offals (SBO) were to be banned from all human food. This decision was implemented in November 1989 for England and Wales and in January 1990 for Scotland and Northern Ireland (whose legal systems are independent of that of England and Wales). This is interesting because Southwood had recommended only that SBO should be excluded from baby food. This is an example of the precautionary principle in operation - decision making that goes beyond the current scientific knowledge of risk. It is important to note that when the Secretary of State for Health made his initial statement about vCJD in the House of Commons in March 1996 (Section 1.5), he said that victims were probably exposed to BSE prior to the introduction of the SBO ban. [R D]
So far we have considered only local and national decision making: decision making at the international level also had a role to play. For example, during March and April 1990, the EC restricted export of cattle from the UK to animals that were less than six months old when slaughtered, ruled that all cases of BSE had to be notified to the Commission and banned the export of SBO-containing material from the UK to other Member States. Thus, at this stage the EC appeared to be applying the precautionary principle more comprehensively than did the UK government. [D]
Meanwhile in the UK, it was announced in April 1990 that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) would be formed - effectively, a (semi-)permanent advisory body replacing the Southwood Working Group and with a similar remit. This suggests acceptance that BSE was going to be a long-term issue.
In May 1990, the then Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (John Selwyn Gummer) and the CMO made the first of several declarations that beef was safe to eat, an example of which is illustrated in Figure 13. In the following activity, you will investigate the impact of statements such as these by considering the four themes: communication, risk, ethical issues and decision making. [C R E D]