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From: TSS (
Date: August 11, 2004 at 9:21 am PST

In Reply to: AMERICAN NIGHTMARE BSE/TSE SHOOT, SHOVEL AND SHUT UP (NEW SCIENTIST) posted by TSS on August 11, 2004 at 7:37 am:


Global infection

New Scientist vol 166 issue 2242 - ***10 June 2000***, page 4

It's official: even in countries that deny it, some cattle are likely to be harbouring BSE

ACROSS Europe, tens of millions of people believe they have little chance of catching new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (vCJD) because their countries are officially BSE-free. But scientists advising the European Commission say they have every reason to be worried.

BSE, believed to be the cause of vCJD, is much more widespread than some countries will admit: the advisers say that Germany, Italy and Spain, officially BSE-free, are "likely to be infected". And infection "is unlikely but cannot be excluded" in six more European countries, as well as Canada, Australia and the US.

These figures have emerged from a two-year study for the Commission of the factors affecting the spread of BSE in 25 countries by independent scientists and experts in the countries concerned. They collected data on each country's import of cattle and meat and bone meal (MBM) from Britain and other BSE-infected countries, then calculated how well the importing country would have controlled any infection. To restrict BSE, cattle feed should be pressure-cooked, and should not contain MBM.

Smaller studies have already suggested a more widespread BSE epidemic (New Scientist, 3 May 1997, p 14), but this is the first official assessment. A draft has been put on the Web to collect comments from researchers and government experts.

American officials told New Scientist that they are preparing a reply. Werner Zwingmann, Germany's chief veterinary offeicer, says the assessment is based on probabilities that are "purely speculative". Brian Evans, Canada's chief veterinary officer, thinks the assessment is too harsh. A British cow imported to Canada developed BSE in 1993 and 63 others may have become cattle fodder. "We don't dispute that infection cannot be completely ruled out, but the measures Canada took at the time were appropriate," says Evans.

Germany imported 13 000 British cattle at the height of Britain's epidemic, plus 1200 tonnes of British MBM. The figures for Spain and Italy were similar. Some of this meat, including infection-bearing nervous tissue, was fed to local cattle without enough pressure-cooking to make it safe. These cows could have infected others. In all three countries, any BSE infectivity entering the system "would have been quickly amplified", the scientists conclude.

The Commission banned feeding cattle to cattle in 1994, but infection would have continued to circulate, says the assessment, through infected cattle remains contaminating feed mills, and insufficient pressure-cooking of feed. All three countries have refused Commission requests to remove high-risk tissue, such as brains and spinal cords, from cattle carcasses, insisting that their cattle are BSE-free. "We consider their BSE risk similar to countries with a low, admitted incidence of BSE, such as France," says Marcus Doherr of the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office, one of the assessment's organisers.

These countries say they have no sick cows in their herds. But Doherr says that their "passive" surveillance, which relies on farmers reporting sick animals, may entirely miss small numbers of cases. Passive monitoring detects only a third of such cases, according to more active surveillance in Britain and Switzerland, where cows not suspected of having BSE have still been tested after slaughter.

The US imported 126 cattle and 44 tonnes of MBM from Britain. Any infection would have been amplified and could still be circulating, while surveillance would not detect all cases, says the report.


Secrets and lies in Europe - Mad cow disease is perceived as a British problem. But there are signs that the infection has spread silently across the Continent and may now be about to erupt

New Scientist vol 154 issue 2080 - 03 May 97, page 14


BEFORE 1996, supermarkets in Brussels that sold British beef would proudly advertise the fact on large signs over their meat counters. Since the scare over mad cow disease put an end to British beef exports, the signs have promoted Belgian beef as a safe alternative—pure and trustworthy, and free from bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

But there is growing evidence that shoppers in Brussels, and all over Europe, are being deceived. Veterinary experts are claiming that because countries which believe they have no indigenous BSE take few precautions against it, unknown numbers of BSE-infected cattle have entered the human and animal food chains. They fear that the infection has been seriously underreported in Europe and may be quietly spreading throughout the continent.

"Of course we have had [unreported] cases of BSE in Belgium," admits Emmanuel Vanopdenbosch, head of BSE at the National Institute for Veterinary Research in Brussels and chairman of the European Union's scientific advisory committee for BSE. He claims that animals with strange, undiagnosed symptoms of the central nervous system have simply been slaughtered and in many cases have ended up on the beef shelves in supermarkets. "Frankly, I am worried," he says.

Officials at the European Commission are also concerned. This week the Commission is confronting EU member governments with a secret report on their slipshod meat hygiene and BSE surveillance, including the monitoring of herds and the reporting of suspicious cases, with suggestions for improvements. Scientists who advise the Commission say that until the governments admit publicly that they may have a problem, the spread of the disease will continue.

No one is expecting a Continent-wide BSE epidemic on the scale of that experienced in Britain, which has recorded more than 167 000 cases since 1986. But there are serious concerns about how prevalent the infection has become in other EU countries as a result of feeding cows on meat and bone meal (MBM) made from infected British cattle. Experts say the official figures do not reflect the true picture.

Switzerland, Portugal and Ireland have together reported around 500 cases since 1989, virtually all caused by infected British feed. Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg, Sweden, Finland and Spain have reported none. Denmark says it has had one case, Italy two and Germany five, though all in cattle imported from Britain. This contrasts oddly with France's 27 cases, all of which were indigenous and all of which were linked to infected British MBM. The Dutch reported their first two cases this spring, apparently also caused by infected British feed.

Hidden taunts

Bram Schreuder, head of BSE research at the Dutch Institute for Animal Science and Health in Lelystad, believes these figures are too low to be true. He points out that 57 900 British cattle were exported to the Continent for breeding between 1985 and 1990 and lived on average for another two years. Based on the proportion of cattle of the same age in Britain that developed BSE, Schreuder calculates that at least 1688 of those exported cows must have become sick. "They were not reported," he says. "So they have entered the food chain."

Additional cases must have occurred through infected MBM imported from Britain, says Marc Savey, head of animal health research at the French National Centre for Veterinary Studies in Lyon. A French parliamentary inquiry into BSE published in January claims that up to 16 000 tonnes of British MBM were imported every year by France alone before Paris banned it in 1989. Other EU countries imported British MBM until 1994. Accurate trade figures are impossible to obtain, says Savey, "but we know there is a massive trade in MBM among all European countries. Just the fact that Switzerland has lots of cases caused by British MBM shows there must be others." Yet France, and now the Netherlands, are the only countries reporting such cases.

Savey says that many EU countries, with their subsidised and surplus meat production, turn a blind eye to BSE in order to protect meat exports, all of which must stop once a country's first indigenous case— occurring in a cow born in that country—is declared. This may not be deliberate, says Vanopdenbosch. "When you think your country is free of BSE, you just don't consider that diagnosis. But when I show videos of British cases, Belgian vets say, `Oh yes, we've had cows like that'." Other pressures discourage reporting. The farmer who reported Germany's most recent case in January needed a police guard to protect him from angry neighbours.

"Everyone should admit they can have the odd case," says Vanopdenbosch. "Then perhaps we can keep it from becoming an epidemic." Savey warns: "One brain can infect 500 animals. We must do three things—conduct surveillance to pick up as many cases of BSE as possible, and destroy those herds, prevent the manufacture of infected MBM, and stop feeding MBM to cattle."

Feeding mammalian MBM to ruminants has been illegal in the EU since 1994. But Vanopdenbosch warns: "If infected cattle were recycled through the food chain before that, with normal incubation times we will get explosions of the disease in some countries next year or the year after." A confidential report compiled earlier this year by the Commission's veterinary inspectors found that mammalian MBM still gets into cattle in the EU, some of it labelled illegally as something else.

In addition, from last month all MBM from "high risk" ruminants must be cooked at a specified temperature, pressure and time in the EU. But farmers sometimes feed their cattle with products intended for pigs and chickens which can contain nonpressure cooked mammalian MBM. Savey says this is one reason why many French cases have occurred in the west, near most of France's pig and chicken farms.

But even if farmers do everything properly, their cattle may still be at risk from cross-contamination in Europe's feed mills. According to the Commission, an inspection by Dutch authorities revealed that MBM labelled as coming from fish or birds can contain up to 10 per cent mammalian material, the remains of batches left in the milling equipment. British feed mills make a full separation between mammalian and other material, but the continent has not yet felt the need to do this.

Germany insists that it is free of BSE, despite the fact that neighbouring France and the Netherlands have had cases of the disease caused by infected feed. However, known BSE-infected animals imported from Britain have already been turned into MBM in Germany—although the heads of the five German BSE cases found so far were sent for examination, their carcasses were sent to the renderers. This became illegal in January, but the most recent case died on 27 December. When the animal was diagnosed in January, inspectors had to move fast to round up the batch of MBM that contained the remains of the diseased cow.

Surveillance secrets

There are no uniform EU rules dictating how governments should carry out surveillance for BSE. Each government sets its own standards, and they differ widely. Savey says that most national rules on surveillance are not stringent enough, and often poorly enforced.

Ideally, cattle with odd behaviour that do not respond to treatment should be slaughtered and their brains examined for BSE. Vanopdenbosch says that, based on known incidences of diseases with behavioural symptoms in cattle, farmers should be reporting every year about 100 such cases per million head of cattle over the age of two, the youngest age at which BSE develops. A lower reporting rate, he says, means that cases which might be BSE are being missed.

"No country in the EU [apart from Britain] reports 100 cases per million," he says. Since 1990, Belgium has averaged 48 cases per million per year, Germany about 70 and France nine. Although they have 2.8 million cattle over two years old, Dutch farmers reported just one suspicious case in 1995 and 22 in 1996. The Netherlands has now improved its surveillance of cows with behavioural problems, and has reported 16 cases in the first four months of 1997. "It is no coincidence," says Vanopdenbosch, that the improved reporting in the Netherlands is finally turning up cases of BSE. "It is impossible there were none before."

The Commission knows the extent of the surveillance programmes of all EU countries but it keeps them secret, even from the scientific advisory committee. Savey says national reports to a meeting in Brussels in 1993 "show who is doing good surveillance and who is not". Of the countries with few or no cases of BSE, only France and Germany said they conducted surveillance for the disease at all. Spain admitted that the British cattle it had imported should have given it 20 cases, while its British MBM imports since 1980 could have reached 24 000 cattle. Its own MBM plants, it admitted, were "very unlikely" to inactivate BSE. Still, it reported no specific surveillance effort, and still admits no cases.

Savey says that effective BSE surveillance is not just "a matter of numbers. You can look at as many animals with behavioural symptoms as you like, and still miss the few real cases of BSE if you are not looking for the right thing." It is only possible to find BSE, says Savey, by looking specifically for symptoms that are unique to that disease.

Experts contend that if continental Europe admitted it was not immune to BSE, its politics of protection would change. But so far it has not, and last month, on the first anniversary of the announcement that BSE can infect humans, the Commission happily reported that after a temporary dip, meat sales on the continent were back to normal.

Reported cases of BSE in Britain

Debora MacKenzie


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