Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

Viewpoint: Is there such a thing as a BSE-free country?

A scientist dissects brain parts, extracted from cowheads prior to BSE tests in in this 2000 photo.
A scientist dissects brain parts, extracted from cowheads prior to BSE tests in in this 2000 photo.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Is there such a thing as a BSE-free country?

The more I read about the disease, the less that I believe this is possible.

Since the hysteria of the 1990s has died down, scientists have realised that BSE -just like the human form, CJD- always existed in the population. Cells sometimes do funny things in nature, and brain cells are no different. Occasionally, they spontaneously mutate, turning into the irregular cells, or prions in this case. These slowly cause their neighbours to mutate, leading to the sponge-like holes in an animal's brain that lend themselves to the name of the disease - Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Since 2001, the records show that random mutations - as opposed to the ones linked to meat and bonemeal - have occurred 80 times within the EU, at a rate of up to eight cases a year. Out of a total EU bovine population of 100 million, that equates to a maximum annual rate of one in every 10 million animals.

However, you will note that the data only extends back to 2001. This is because we only started rigidly testing everything around that time. In other words, before BSE became a problem, it was just considered 'one of those things'.

This all goes a long way to explaining how BSE got out of control. One of these spontaneous mutants - known as atypical cases in the literature - was presumably munched into meat and bonemeal before being fed to other animals. Once the mutant prions were ingested by healthy animals, these could then 'contaminate' other cells in the previously healthy animal's brain.

What has all this got to do with Ireland? At this point, we don't know exactly what caused the suspected case in Co Louth, or whether this was an atypical case.

But say for a moment that every speck of contaminated feed is removed from these shores. With the probability that a case crops up every one in 10 million, what's to stop an atypical case of BSE cropping up here every couple of years and effectively torpedoing our chances of ever becoming BSE 'free'.

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In fact, it actually gets worse. BSE 'free' countries such as Brazil are not obliged to test fallen animals for BSE, so they can blithely continue to leverage their 'negligible risk' status in marketing their meat, while we potentially wallow in our second-tier 'controlled risk' status.

As of today, we may be six years away from being considered for 'negligible risk' status. But in reality, we may never get there. Meanwhile, Brazil with its 200 million cattle 'never' has a case of BSE.

Is this a good argument for relaxing our testing regime? Absolutely not. European consumers can rest easy that their beef is the safest in the world. Maybe in time it will stand to us, as our export customers realise the significance of this regime. In the meantime, the World Animal Health Organisation's (OIE) disease ranking system needs a serious overhaul.

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