It's tough being a beef eater in Britain. TV images of demented, wobbly-legged cattle--victims of a lethal illness dubbed mad-cow disease--have invaded living rooms since 1986. But government officials insisted that the disease was no threat to humans. With such assurances, beef remained on most dinner tables, and the disease returned to the back burner of Britain's concerns.
Not anymore. Nine years after scientists first identified bovine spongiform encephalopathy, public fears that the mysterious BSE agent might be infecting humans have reached a fever pitch. Two British teenagers died--in April and August--of a brain-devouring ailment eerily similar to BSE. Called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, this nasty human malady has been around for decades: It killed choreographer George Balanchine in 1983. But it normally afflicts only tiny numbers of middle-aged and elderly people. In Britain, however, CJD fatalities not only are occurring among the young, but have doubled since 1985, to 55 cases last year.
NO MORE LIVER. Such scary statistics have raised fears that BSE can pass from cattle to humans. The government already bans the use in foodstuffs of cow brains and certain other organs, in which BSE is most apt to lurk. Now, some top British scientists and doctors want the ban extended to additional organs. European farmers are asking their governments to halt imports of British beef. And thousands of English schools have removed beef from lunch menus. Meat sales in shops are off by 15%, and auction prices for cattle have dropped through the slaughterhouse floor.
Other countries, including the U.S., share Britain's concerns. "We need to monitor this very carefully," says Robert Howard, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The big fear: an outbreak among currently BSE-free U.S. cows.
There is no evidence that BSE can make the jump from cow to human. Even so, former British government health-care adviser Dr. Bernard Tomlinson recently revealed that he no longer eats liver. Nor does he eat hamburgers or meat pies--which could include ground-up brains and other organs. These parts of the carcass, scientists say, may harbor the infectious agent--believed to be a rogue protein called a prion. Such proteins, which contain no DNA but nevertheless seem to propagate in organs and brains, are not deactivated by cooking. Worse, there are no vaccines or cures for the diseases they cause.
This much is known about the British epidemic: Cattle were probably afflicted after being fed ground sheep carcasses infected with scrapie, a sheep disease similar to BSE. In 1988, after cows started dying, the government banned the use of cattle and sheep in animal feed and ordered the slaughter of any beast with BSE symptoms. But seven years and 150,000 BSE cases later, 300 cows a week are coming down with the disease. Most perplexing: Cattle born after 1988, which presumably didn't eat infected feed, have contracted the disease.
BUM STEER. The European Union also has banned the feeding of cow and sheep carcasses to animals. But the U.S. has not done so, complains Richard F. Marsh, a University of Wisconsin animal-health professor, despite many cases of sheep scrapie. "This is a practice we've got to stop," he says.
The seeming increase in CJD may result from better reporting of cases. But Sheila Gore, a biostatistician at Britain's Medical Research Council, says there's only a 1-in-10,000 chance that the four farmers who have died in the past three years represent a normal incidence of the disease. More worrisome are the deaths of the two teenagers. There have been only four other recorded cases of CJD among teens in Europe and the U.S. Still, given the long incubation period for the disease, "it's going to be many years before we know if human health has been compromised," says Dr. Will Patterson, a British public-health specialist.
For Britain, the big question is whether to ban human consumption of all beef brains and other organs--and risk slaughtering Britain's beef industry. The more Britons swear off beef, the less relevant such a ban becomes.
1986 The first cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), nicknamed mad-cow disease, show up on British farms
1988 Britain begins slaughtering, then incinerating diseased cattle
1990 To quell fears, then-Agricultural Minister John Gummer has his daughter eat a hamburger on TV
NOVEMBER, 1995 Alarm spreads with a report that four farmers died from a disease similar to BSE
DECEMBER, 1995 1,000 schools remove beef from lunch menus