Introduction:The relationship between society and science took a verynegative shift in 1996 when in the face of previous denials, the Governmentconfirmed the possibility of a link between “mad cow disease” orbovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and the increase in cases of a newvariant form of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.
Almost overnight the UK meat industry collapsed, with disastrous socialand economic consequences. The 2000parliament BSE inquiry report put it aptly when they stated, “the publicfelt betrayed” (Lord Phillips, 2000). Public relations between the Governmentand scientific advisors were deeply shaken (Jacob and Hellström, 2000). Looking back at the crisis now there was alasting damage to the public, the Government, and scientific advisors becauseof the mistakes made. Science communicationin the UK has changed dramatically wanting a more open dialogue with the publicsince the scandal (De Marchi and Ravetz, 1999). Background:The outbreak has been first traced to a farm in West Sussexwhen a cow was behaving abnormally with loss of coordination and havingtremors. The vet examining the cow wasdeeply puzzled by the symptoms the animal was displaying. The Central Veterinary Laboratory wasinformed, and they identified the disease as a novel spongiform prion disease (Wells et al.
, 1987). Prions are misfolded proteins which act as atemplate for other proteins to misfold (Eraña et al., 2017). They change properties when they aremisfolded and aren’t as soluble which causes degeneration of the brain. Scientific experts investigated the diseaseand found cows being fed contaminated offal was the likely cause of the disease.
Offal is made up of hooves, entrails, spinaltissue and other tissues not fit for human consumption. Offal was fed to cows because it was a cheapsource of protein and helped cattle grow faster (Smith, 2003). Cows are naturally herbivores so feeding themoffal was a very unethical way to provide protein. This “industrial cannibalism” was aneasy way to make more profit. Thecontaminated offal was likely from a sheep with Scrapie, a disease that wascaused by prions (Nathanson, Wilesmith and Griot, 1997). It had crossed the species barrier betweencows and sheep because the proteins were similar enough for them to interactand change the cow proteins to the pathogenic form causing BSE (Liebman, 2001).
When the BSE disease started becoming more prevalent in theUK there were fears it could cross the species barrier again from cattle tohumans, scientists feared this but there was mixed evidence if it waspossible. But during the BSE crisisthere was a rise in cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease a rare neurologicaldisease caused by prions. Further evidencelater revealed a link between eating beef infected with BSE and the new casesof Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Thecontaminated meat was distributed to shops and was sterilised by high UVradiation and temperature, but as prions are more resistant to degradation thanother pathogenic agents, this was ineffective (Brown etal., 2003). Symptoms for vCJDincluded depression, mood swings (so it was often misdiagnosed), speech impairment, jerkymovements, balance and coordination impairment, and seizures (Ironside, 2010). The symptoms are caused bythe death of the brain’s nerve cells because a build-up ofabnormal prion proteins form amyloids in their insoluble form. They become aggregated in the brainand cause the brain to be “sponge-like” with holes where nerve cells havedied.
Currentlythere is no cure or prevention for prion and amyloid diseases. The brain is very complex and administratingdrugs to the brain is very difficult, there is no immune response from thepatient’s body too as the pathogenic prion proteins are recognised as self bythe body (McCarthy et al., 2013). There is still little known about the disease thousands are thought to have consumed meat infectedwith BSE but only 177 are known to have died from vCJD so far, this couldincrease with time as the disease has a long incubation period (Will etal., 1996).
UK GovernmentReaction to BSE:The British Government was first informed about the BSEcrisis in 1987 when the disease had been confirmed as a prion disease likeScrapie by the Central Veterinary Laboratory and in April 1988 slaughtering ofall animals with the disease was implemented. The minister of Agriculture, Fisheries andFood at the time John MacGregor insisted that there was no evidence of thedisease becoming infectious to humans from the evidence he had seen fromscientists. In 1989, a ban was alsointroduced on the use of high-risk offal (brain, spinal cord, and spleen). There were fears infected beef was enteringthe food chain and the disease would escalate further, but official assuranceswere made from the Ministry of Health that British beef was safe to eat (Allan, 2007). However, in 1990 a farm cat became very sick and displayedthe same symptoms as cattle with BSE, this was believed to be because the catfood was contaminated (Pickrell, 2004). This further scared people because if thedisease could cross between cattle and cats, it could also cross to humans. John Gummer Agriculture Minister decided tointervene to avoid panic by feeding his 4-year-old daughter a British beefburger in front of the press.
It was totry and reassure people but Minister was accused of manipulating his owndaughter. In August 1994, scientistsannounced results of BSE being transmitted to mice from infected meat (Bruce, 1994). This wasthe first scientific paper published with evidence that showed BSE could passto humans. Throughout the continuedescalation of the disease the Government had insisted humans were safe from thedisease, but this denial crumbled by September 1994. More people were dyingfrom a mysterious “new variant” of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and theGovernment could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that the disease wascaused by eating infected beef. The Government received a huge backlash.
The public believed a cover-up had takenplace and that they were being misled. Duringthe crisis the Government had become preoccupied in trying to prevent panic, andhad not been honest about the risk of eating beef. Speculation surrounded why so many teenagerswere becoming ill with vCJD, and further evidence revealed that school meals inthe 1980’s had contained contaminated offal in which was argued to be the causeof the escalated disease in young (Packer, 2006). In March 1996 the EU imposed a worldwide ban on all exportsof British beef.
The Governmentresponded by having tighter regulations on BSE control including slaughteringall older cows. The Government bannedthe sale of “beef on the bone” triggering a media interest witharguments about what is safe to eat (Allan, 2007). A BSE inquiry was also instated by thenew Labour Government in 1998 headed by the judge Lord Phillips. The report found the Government hadprioritised farmers over public safety and in retrospect, that was a seriousfailure 4.
5 million cattle were slaughtered, and UK victims reached 177 cases (LordPhillips, 2000).The public felt betrayed they should have been trusted to berational when discussing uncertainty, scientific investigation and thecontradictions of the evidence (Holliman, 2009). The BSE crisis was one example of the deficitmodel in action and how the public was seen as an “empty vessel” to fill withknowledge, when in reality people have their own preconceptions of science andof risk.
Science communicators now wantto have more of a dialogue with the public about science (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, 2016). Global Response tothe BSE disease: After the EU issued a ban on all beef products beingexported from 1996 to 2006 there much fear surrounding British beef. But as the disease was investigated more inthe early 2000s, more information was revealed about other countries trying tocover up their own cattle being infected with BSE after seeing the devastationit caused in the UK. In France, the crisis peaked in 2000 with hundreds ofinfected cattle being slaughtered soon after the first cases of vCJD werediagnosed. French farmers had used offaland bone meal to feed their cattle like UK farmers, as they didn’t have accessto soybeans either.
This was a practicethat was wide spread across Europe before 1987 as soybeans did not grow well inEurope. France was heavily criticised bythe rest of the world in 2004 after a report found that although the Governmenthad claimed only 923 cases of infected cattle with BSE, the figure was closerto 300,000 making France the country with the highest cases of infected cattle(Supervie and Costagliola, 2004). Although the UK had many more cases of people infected with vCJD 9French citizens had died unnecessarily after the mass cover-up (Allan, 2007). France had even illegally banned British exports of beef for many yearsafter the EU ban had finished. There wasan outrage of hypocrisy especially as many UK farmers suffered from the ban andbecame bankrupt due to the bans in the EU. Spain, Germany and Portugal had few cases of infected cattlebut dealt with the cases in a similar way to France and tried to downplay theactual number of incidences.
As agriculturalpractices were the same throughout Europe, as other sources of protein wereexpensive many countries and their Governments had the same situation as the UKand were trying to prevent panic. Mostcountries were fortunate that they could act quicker than the UK, Governmentsstopped practices immediately and slaughtered animals quickly in response toseeing the UK agricultural industry’s economic losses (Brown,2001). Japan was reported to have a large outbreak of BSE in theearly 2000s, this was denied though. Japan had no food regulations in place andthe Japanese farmers were thought to be feeding the cows offal.
When the outbreaks were discovered, aJapanese Government department was formed known as the Government food safetycommission in 2003 to try and stop the practice (McCluskey et al., 2005). Not all countries tried to cover-up and hide the disease, Irelandafter seeing the repercussions to the beef market in the UK acted very responsibly. Every case of BSE was investigated thoroughly,and the infected animals were slaughtered (Denny and Hueston, 1997). In 2005, Alan Colchester Professor of Neurology at theUniversity of Kent published a paper with the theory that the UK BSE outbreakstarted by importing Indian bone-meal that they claimed contained CJD materialfrom human remains (Colchester and Colchester, 2005). They believed this was how the quicklyinfected individuals. The IndianGovernment has completely denied this and have argued they have had no cases ofBSE. There is little evidence to supportthis line of inquiry like all theories for how the BSE epidemic started, but ithad became obvious BSE was a worldwide issue and was not just an isolatedincidence in the UK.
The BSE crisis did not only cause mistrust in the UK publicbut in countries like France when their own citizens were outraged that theyhad been lied to. Many countries inEurope were to blame for the crisis and across the world. Communicating science during the BSE crisiswas very difficult, and many Governments had failed to do it correctly becausethe evidence and facts did not speak for themselves and could be interrupteddifferently. Conclusion: To conclude, the BSE scandal was a very serious failure forthe UK Government. Not only did theBritish Government fail but globally many countries tried to cover up thedisease. This lead to betrayal not onlyfor the UK, but other countries across the world. Due to the betrayal people felt from the Governmentmany feared the public would become “anti-science”. Fortunately, because the Government learntfrom the mistakes made this did not happen and science communication becamemuch more open to help rebuild the relationship between the Government, publicand science experts.
Although, there arestill weaknesses in science communication and the new approach to publicengagement it has been improved because of the tragedy of BSE.The number of cases of the disease have dramatically fallensince the 1990’s, many experts are not sure if more people are still infectedbecause of its long incubation period but it is hoped that we are over theworst of the disease. BSE is still a newdisease and there is lots we still do not understand about it, there is still apossibility it could resurface.
With newresearch and technology perhaps in the future there will be more hope foranyone infected.