Bovine spongiform encephalopathy: its wider meaning for population health

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7042.1313 (Published 25 May 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1313
  1. A J Mcmichael
  1. Professor of epidemiology Department of Epidemiology and Population Sciences, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London WC1E 7HT

    Worldwide intensive meat production is unsustainable

    Evidence from Britain that the agent causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle may cause neurological disease in beef eaters1 and the consequent turmoil in the beef trade have made compelling headline news across Europe. The ecological dimensions to this public drama have, however, even wider implications for population health.

    Three issues warrant discussion. Firstly, although the infective agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and its effects may seem exotic, this episode merely extends the long running narrative whereby changes in human culture induce new infectious diseases. Secondly, the method of cattle feeding implicated in the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy seems partly to have arisen because of supply-demand pressures in the world food production system. Thirdly, the scare about bovine spongiform encephalopathy is the tip of a much larger iceberg of adverse environmental and health consequences of the mass production and consumption of meat.

    Firstly, incredulity that the mysterious transmissible agent responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy might “jump species” and infect humans is misplaced. Microbes and their ilk are no less opportunistic than any other species—and are capable of rapid genetic adaptation.2 We humans …

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