Bovine spongiform encephalopathy

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7050.171 (Published 20 July 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:171
  1. Stephen Dealler
  1. Consultant microbiologist Burnley General Hospital, Burnley BB10 2PQ

    Disease is due to pressure on farming industry

    EDITOR,—I agree with A J McMichael's statement that bovine spongiform encephalopathy may in some way be due to the build up of pressure on the farming industry.1 As a researcher into the disease I have had to investigate the reasons why it has occurred in Britain and apparently not elsewhere. It became clear to me that the economics of the highly efficient system in Britain were involved.

    Farmers in Britain are commonly tenants, and so their rent can increase when profits increase (for example, due to the common agricultural policy). As a result, no matter what the potential profitability of a method being used is, there is continuous high pressure on the system to become more efficient. This led to the use of the most productive cattle for lactation; the most effective pesticides for the price; the most effective rendering plants; and any good, reasonably priced source of protein in the bovine diet. The result was that over 95% of the dairy cattle in Britain were from three breeds and the vast majority were Holstein-Friesian, and the renderers were almost all owned by two companies and used a single method for producing feed. Profits were relatively low but reliable, as long as the European Union kept the prices up and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food supplied technical help and help with sales.

    The problem with this is that if one thing goes wrong then the mistake or risk applies to the whole system, which collapses; the individual companies and farmers have little to fall back on. As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food believes that it must back up the farmers and bring back confidence, even when this confidence is not justified (eggs really were contaminated with Salmonella and pate with Listeria, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy infected large numbers of cattle being eaten and could not be assumed to be a low risk).

    The emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy shows how pressure towards high efficiency leads to nationally organised, relatively fragile, single method systems that can collapse easily and may depend on the suppression or denial of information in the short term for such collapse to be avoided. What happens when a disease such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy appears that is potentially fatal to a considerable proportion of the population2 but proof for or against this will not become available for several years? Under the current system either attempts are made to assure the consumers of the safety of the food (with inadequate justification) or the industry collapses. As McMichael states, it is the pressure on the system that leads to this, and it will happen repeatedly as the pressure increases.


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