BSE troubles again

5 February 2001

Here it is again, yet another BSE scare and this time it is not just one country but a large part of Europe. Countries that prided themselves with being totally safe, while the UK was labelled as the culprit for having exposed their population and those in other countries for not making public the possible complications of BSE in their bovine herds, are now finding BSE in their herds. Despite the terrible UK experience where tens of thousands of cattle were culled, feedlots in other European countries have continued to feed their bovine with the animal bonemeal. The scare, again, is huge, with a reduction of some 50% in beef consumption, but to me the risks involved in eating beef seem to be highly exaggerated by the press, who were engaged in a similar senseless crusade some decades ago against mercury contaminated fish. The very small number of cattle affected by BSE, as reported now by various countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France and Portugal and the number of human beings that have died in the UK of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in recent years, seem rather out of proportion as a reason to cause a general panic among consumers. I am, of course, not advocating that one is not related to the other, as well-known scientists have established that such a link probably does exist. There is a similar link between smoking and cancer with a proportionately far larger number of victims and the European governments have taken no significant steps at all to prohibit smoking. Smoking is proven dangerous for your health, so is the excessive use of alcohol, but it is incredibly profitable for both the tobacco and spirits producers and the state coffers. Hence, smoking and excessive drinking are and will not be prohibited, whereas bovine meat is under severe scrutiny. Also cattle farmers have little influence when compared with the huge clout the tobacco and spirit industries wield with governments and parliaments all over the world. 'Sector discrimination' and 'lobbying' are words that come to mind! We have seen the first reactions of the hide market, which surged upwards, presuming after the UK experience that many animals might be culled and their hides might not reach the markets. At this moment the numbers of cattle found with BSE are extremely limited and, hopefully, will remain for each affected country within the two digit region. For safety reasons Australia and New Zealand have closed their borders to European meat imports. I wonder, though, how much meat is imported from Europe to these countries who are known exporters of meat and meat products due to their large domestic dairy production and relatively small consumption. Politically such 'firm and drastic' decisions look very good in the newspapers and to the local consumers. I think that what is wrong with this kind of measureis that it causes unnecessary apprehension among the public, who think that things are being dealt with in an efficient way. What we are actually getting is a political flood of words. Just let us look at newspapers reporting that the EU has prohibited the use of bone meal for animal feed for a period of six months after a long parliamentary battle where economic and national interests were pitted against international healthcare. All this withoutconsidering the knock-on effect that after the six months huge stocks of bone meal might or might not have to be destroyed. Nobody specifies that the decision is correct and should not be limited only to six months for feeding herbivores, whereas I can find no valid reason not to feed the bone meal to omnivores like pigs and chicken, who have given no signs at all of suffering from illnesses similar to BSE, and have officially been declared safe and BSE-free. The basic problem of BSE is that herbivores have been forced to eat animal based proteins and probably nature has called that the bottom line. Personally I can very well understand that for consumer safety it is absolutely necessary to test all animals for BSE, or for that matter all important diseases that could affect humans, in order to eliminate suspected animals from the food chain. What I can't understand is why the hides of these animals should be destroyed together with the animals. Apart from the Indonesian dish, the kroepoek, which is dried fried unsalted cow hide, the Mexican delicacy of fried pigskins, and the UK's liking for eating crisped pigskin with the meat, I have not seen nor heard of people consuming hides or skins from animals bigger than fowl. Okay, I know that fleshings go into the food chain in the form of gelatine or animal fat and into the pharmaceutical or cosmetic industries, but these are sub-products of the byproduct called hide. The value of the fleshings and fat is rather limited and in no proportion to the hide from which they are retrieved. Therefore, instead of destroying the hides from BSE infected animals, why not prohibit the use of their fleshings, that is the fleshings of the fresh hides. I cannot imagine that the BSE bug can survive the liming and deliming processes. I wonder, furthermore, how the health of a person can suffer from wearing shoes, garments or bags made of leather produced from a BSE affected cows. Sam Setter

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