The air above the village of Clintheroe, in northwest England, sometimes smells like a giant barbecue. Plumes of acrid smoke rise from chimneys of a factory at the entry to town. “Here, we burn the cows like charcoal,” explains John Lund, a sturdy woodworker who was sipping a beer in a local hotel after finishing work for the day. Since July 1996, all cows older than 30 months – in other words, those that have had no more than one calf in their lives – walk the path into one of four huge crematoria located throughout the United Kingdom.

The OTM rule (Over Thirty Months of Age) is one of the three measures British authorities have taken to stem the worst of the crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, as it’s commonly known. Animals older than 30 months are most susceptible to the prion – the infectious protein that allegedly turns the brains of both cows and human beings into sponges. Just as this magazine was going to press, Canada had four cases of mad cow disease, the two most recent diagnosed early in 2005. As for the United Kingdom, it had 37,000 cases during the worst of the crisis. Last year, there were 242.

Number of deaths caused by mad cow disease. (Source: United Kingdom Ministry of Health/Human BSE Foundation.)

British authorities have adopted two other measures to stem the epidemic. One is to forbid farmers from giving their cows feed that contains ground-up animal products, a practice that has been termed cannibalistic and is thought to be responsible for the development of the prion in the first place. The process of making the feed in factories would have contributed to the spreading of the pathogen, which, at the height of the crisis, infected one of every four herds in England. Add to that concern over energy prices, wherein the temperature of warm carcasses was reduced before they were ground up. In other words, in order to destroy the hardy prion, it’s necessary to heat the carcasses to 1000 degrees Celsius! (1)

The first mad cow case diagnosed in Canada in 1993 was from an animal imported from the United Kingdom that had probably eaten infected meal. In England, the ban on feed containing animal parts extends to more than just cows. Others, such as pigs and poultry, are also given an entirely “vegetarian” ground up meal.

The United Kingdom counts more than 184,000 confirmed cases of BSE since the start of the crisis. (Source: International Organization of EPIZOOTIES/Erik Millstone and Tim Lang. The Atlas of Food, Earthscan Publication Ltd., 2003.)

Lastly, the retirement from the food chain of specified risk materials (SRM) is the third measure adopted by the British government to stem the crisis. For a human to contract the disease, it is necessary to not only eat meat from an animal with an advanced form of the disease, but a portion of the animal that contains the deadly agent: The brain, spinal cord, certain ganglions (way stations for cells and nerves), the eyes, amygdala or a section of the intestine called the distal ileum. Also, certain methods of cutting the meat, since abolished, such as the mechanical de-boning of the vertebral column, could have contributed to contamination.

Total number of cows with BSE, 1987-2005 (January), United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Japan, United States, Canada. (Source: OIE/Erik Millstone and Tim Lang. The Atlas of Food, Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2003.)

The human version of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy is known as the New Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD). To this date, 147 people have died of nvCJD, after having eaten contaminated meat, says a spokesperson for the Human BSE Foundation, an organization that helps those close to victims of the disease. It isn’t the announced apocalypse in which a million people would have been contaminated. But no one can predict the number of victims of this plague, all the more so if another scandal shakes up the British health network after transfusions of blood contaminated with prions.

In 2004-2005, more than 705,000 cows, about 18 per cent of the national total, will have gone up in smoke, according to estimates for transmittable spongiform diseases in the ministry of the environment, food and rural affairs. English farmers got compensation in the neighborhood of $1,025 Canadian per animal if it tested positive for BSE, and $1,293 Canadian if the test proved negative post-mortem. This compensation has been further raised for farmers in Northern Ireland. The cost generated by the application of the OTM rule during this same period is estimated at more than $700 million Canadian. This lone measure of eradication has cost the British government more than $7 billion Canadian since it began in 1996.

In December 2004, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a kind of British agricultural police, recommended that the government replace the OTM rule with a BSE test for all animals born after July 1, 1996. This new measure is justified because it costs the public treasury less in proportion to risks to consumers, the rate of BSE incidents “has diminished by 99 per cent.” All the animals aged more than 30 months that test negative could be reintroduced into the food chain. As for those who test positive, they could go into the fire along with animals born before July 1, 1996.

The OTM measure will not be replaced if the ministers aren’t assured that the new regime of controlling BSE has been proven to work,” said Health Minister John Reid, who expressed his worry over the recent failures of these tests.

Other than this worry, two other reasons risk torpedoing the replacement of the OTM rule with this new measure, which would come into effect at the end of 2005. First, the entry into the market of all animals aged more than 30 months risks lowering the price of a kilo of beef, which angers farmers. Secondly, the health minister and his colleagues dread the reaction of a public that has already been badly burned – and the British are probably going to the polls in May 2005.

(1) Catherine Dubé. “Vache Folle: la faute aux Anglais?”, Quebec Science, March 2004


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