Filler From our archive

Variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease: early warning (1988)

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 28 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2091

Press announcements released last year about an outbreak of a brain disease, spongiform encephalopathy, in the cattle of south west Britain were received with alarming indifference by the medical profession as well as by the general public. Fears that transmission of the disease to man might occur through the sale of animal products were immediately allayed by reassurances largely from the veterinary profession, but no contribution was made from the food industry, and the basis for this confidence was not adequately explained. It has generally been accepted that the slaughter of animals showing characteristic signs of infection—such as behaviour changes—as well as the usual processes of sterilisation and pasteurisation, are enough to remove any risk to the consumer. Unfortunately, this is a view that is naive, uninformed, and potentially disastrous…

In summary, we are faced with the fact that spongiform encephalopathy, whether or not we are at risk from it ourselves, is now established in the cattle of this country. This is a disease for which there is no serological marker, and the incubation period is probably long. There is no way of telling which cattle are infected until features develop, and if transmission has already occurred to man it might be years before affected individuals succumb. It is possible, but unproved, that many asymptomatic cattle are nevertheless as infective as those symptomatic animals which are immediately destroyed for public health reasons. So should not the use of brains in British foods be either abolished outright or more clearly defined? Then in the absence of more compelling evidence those of us who wish to exclude it from our diets at least have that choice.


Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2091


  • Eight years later came confirmation of the link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy and variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

  • Holt TA, Phillips J. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. BMJ 1988;296:1581-2, doi:10.1136/bmj.296.6636.1581

  • The entire archive of the BMJ, going back to 1840, is now available at

View Abstract

Sign in

Log in through your institution