Can a country which is too proud to apologize to ‘natives’ for the massacre committed by its own troops (in Amritsar, India) as long ago as 1919 bring itself to admit that the ‘mad cow disease’ and the related Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD) it hosts, and exports, have put world health at risk - when such admission is certain to lead to political and economic consequences?
The question is not an idle one - especially as far as the ‘defenceless’ Muslim world is concerned - since only full and public admission of responsibility can secure the degree of British co-operation necessary to contain the twin diseases, if it is not already too late.
The first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), to give mad cow disease its scientific name, was diagnosed in 1985. Since then, the disease has become an epidemic, infecting more than a million cows in England. The epidemic is thought to have spread from the widespread use of feed that contained rendered flesh from sheep and cows, which may have been infected.
In early 1996, scientists reported that the disease may have spread to people in England through contaminated beef, causing a new variant of CJD, a well-known human brain disorder. By the end of last June, 20 people died of the disease, with another infected person still living. But their cases were so unlike the usual ones in people and so like the cow disease that scientists concluded then the two must be related.
By March 1996, the British government was forced to admit that there might be a link between the two diseases, declaring that it had accepted the advice of a scientific panel - the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. And the European Union imposed a worldwide ban on British beef the same month.
But the British government’s reaction to the EU ban was one of jingoism, resulting in a cover-up of the extent of BSE and CJD in the country, and in failure to improve sanitation controls and to clean up the abattoirs. The resurgence of misplaced patriotism was also used to protect British farmers, who resisted attempts to destroy the large number of cattle affected by the disease.
The Conservative government then in power, facing an election, did not want to annoy the farmers and was anxious to remove the EU ban on beef and cattle exports which was losing the country a lot of money. Hence, the cover-up and the downright lying.
The mismanagement of the crisis led to an evaporation of jingoism and to fear among the British that they might be facing a huge health problem. The re-emergence of the E-coli disease which led to the death of 20 people in Scotland, gave the lie to the government’s claim that the necessary safeguards had been put in place. It also transpired that the European Commission had in fact told British ministers eight years earlier to clean up the abattoirs, specifically mentioning the dangers from filthy cattle at the heart of the E-coli row.
An editorial in the London-based Independent daily in March (the first anniversary of the EU ban) described the scale of cover-up and lying regarding both the BSE and E-coli crises thus: ‘Repeated warnings on the development of the crises were ignored; those who made the warnings were vilified. Essential research was cut, vital information suppressed, groundless reassurances trotted out, and barefaced lies told.’
Subsequent scientific research linking BSE and CJD, and the discovery that the incubation period of the human form of the disease could be 20 years or more, triggered public alarm but not official concern. The fact that Clare Tomkins, 24, who had been a vegetarian for 12 years, contracted the disease hammered home the point that taking precautions could be too late by many years.
Despite this, the new Labour government, which came to power after the May elections, and many scientists have proved dangerously complacent about the new threat, not only to the UK but also to Europe and beyond - greeting every new evidence with the mantra that it does not conclusively prove the link between the two diseases, and that it is therefore irresponsible to cause public alarm, which could inflict huge economic damage.
But a few leading experts on CJD have chosen to speak out against the growing complacency over the chances of a major epidemic. John Collinge of St Mary’s Hospital in London says that although the number of cases of the new form of the disease believed to be caused by infected beef has not risen as quickly as some people feared, a major epidemic could still occur.
‘It may only involve hundreds, but it could be Europe-wide and become a disaster of biblical proportions,’ Dr Collinge said. ‘We have to face the possibility of a disaster with tens of thousands of cases.’
This prospect was not new, he said, but there was a danger that it was being discounted too quickly. The chairman of the government’s advisory committee on CJD-like diseases, John Pattison, warned 18 months earlier of the possibility of half a million deaths.
These apocalyptic warnings were given credence when a group of senior scientists, meeting in London in early October, voiced their collective fear that CJD could be spread through the population via blood transfusions. They called on the government to take urgent action, but the government gave its usual excuse - saying the risk of infection was ‘negligible’ but that since it was possible ‘research will be comissioned.’
But the consequences of this blase’ attitude of the British government will not be borne only by the British people. Infected British beef and cattle have already been exported to Europe and Muslim countries legally before the March 28, 1996 EU ban, and illegally since then.
A European study of BSE controls in the EU last May found serious lapses in the ability of member countries to identify and report the disease. Emmanuel Vanopdenbosch, the Belgian Chairman of the European Union’s scientific advisory committee for BSE, said: ‘No country in Europe can claim to be BSE-free!’
What this means is that Muslim countries which have switched from Britain to Europe for their cattle and beef imports are not protected. This is in addition to the risks of disease arising from the illegal activities of what has been called ‘beef mafias’, which import illegally infected British meat to Europe and then to other countries as European beef.
Last July, the EU said 1,600 tons of British beef had been illegally exported, with Belgian help, to the Netherlands, Egypt and Russia - accusing Britain of employing ‘manifestly inadequate’ export controls. When Labour was in opposition, it promised to impose strict export controls to implement the ban when in government.
The main victims of this omission are expected to be Muslim countries, which are targeted by the beef mafia, whether British, European or Muslim. With the ruling elites in those countries deeply involved in the traditionally pervasive corruption, a new avenue of quick self-enrichment can only be welcome there. And the new British prime minister, Tony Blair, who is hot on trade, will not lose a night’s sleep over British beef being sold illegally to Muslims.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1997