From the October 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
The science behind the BSE scandal
The science behind the BSE scandal
It is well known that the “mad cow disease" or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy appeared due to the feeding of sheep carcasses infected with the brain disease Scrapie to cattle as a protein supplement. This was done because it was a way of producing meat as cheaply as possible, thus yielding a higher profit margin. It was done with callous disregard for dangers to human health, which were predictable.
Since the resulting appearance of connected cases of Creutzfeld Jakob Disease (the human equivalent of BSE) a programme of government propaganda has been instituted, never hesitating to bring in the pronouncements of official "scientists" to keep a lid on the looming crisis, while marginalising those who have warned of the real danger to human health. In spite of this, a picture of what the profit system has unleashed has peeped through.
Some background may be useful. All healthy mammals have within their brains prions, an unusual type of protein in that it contains no DNA (the code that allows for cell reproduction). It is a bit of a mystery, but what has become less so is that they seem to exist to prevent wasting of the brain. Mice bred free of prions have quickly exhibited signs of coordination problems, inevitably leading to total loss of movement and death. In addition vital areas of the brain have shrunk to a third of their normal size. All of these signs are hallmarks of BSE and CJD and other prion-related illnesses. As the problem with BSE and CJD is not the absence of prions, but the presence of mutated or “bad" ones it can be presumed that, when mutated, the prions cease to function in the proper way and this leads to the damage to brain matter which eventually gives rise to the now ominously familiar sponge-like appearance of the brain the final stages of infection. Worth bearing in mind is that all methods of killing proteins have failed to rub out prions (perhaps because of lack of DNA). All very interesting, but so what?
Well, these problems are often hereditary (perhaps genetic), but mutated prions can also act as rogue disease agents. When transmitted to a new host the "bad" prions can lock into healthy ones, turning them into diseased prions and then spreading the process throughout the brain.The final destruction of the brain can take up to 30 years or it can proceed much more rapidly. The crucial point is that this transmission isn’t restricted to members of the same species, but can occur from one species of mammal to another, as long as the prions are similar enough. Now for the heavy stuff: humans do not share key prion similarities with sheep, but we do with cattle. Therefore sheep prion disease like Scrapie cannot be passed on to humans, but this does not mean that humans can’t catch the brain diseases of cattle or other animals. Quite the opposite in fact.
In this light, the government and their "establishment scientists" longtime insistence that BSE was merely a form of Scrapie can be seen for what it was: a smokescreen to throw people from realising the true nature of BSE and its implication for human beings (Scrapie being no threat). In other words a lie—a lie sanctioned by the dubious “science” the state and food and agriculture capitalists rely on for their credibility. Credibility that is beginning to look as solid as, er ... cow shit.
So, although we are not vulnerable to the sheep-form of this prion disease, cattle evidently are and, as we will look at later, we are vulnerable to the form the disease/mutation takes in cattle. And if we were not then why have the official agencies been so eager to obscure the true nature of BSE with theories like the above? Could the fear of economic crisis, the peril to profit, the world-wide collapse of industrial meat production and the inevitable knock-on effect on the major northern political apparatuses be behind it?
The full implications of what has been unleashed are suggested by findings which show that 16 species of mammal, including primates and pigs (close genetic relations to ourselves) can pick up the prion disease causing BSE/CJD via eating infected material. Such tests carried out by the World Health Organisation early this decade led to the conclusion that risk to humans from infected matter entering the food chain was unacceptably high.
All the more alarming. 1994 saw over 146,000 official cases of BSE and up to last year the WHO suggests that up to 40 percent of cases were not even reported and out of those that were up to 40 percent were left out of the statistics. The latter point again raises the question: Why? In addition government guidelines on what constitutes "safe" meat may be wrong by up to 10,000 percent. All of which means the amount of infected carcasses that actually entered the human food chain can only be guessed at. especially over the period it was being treated as of no threat to "consumers”, i.e. working-class people.
However, a rough estimate is that by 2001 up to 1,800,000 infected cattle may have been consumed on the British market alone. And this may be a bit too much on the rough side as methods of transmission to cattle and incubation periods are not fully know. Further, the susceptibility of pigs for instance to mutated prions may also mean that other types of livestock are possible infected. Recent government measures affecting sheep and goats can perhaps be viewed in this worrying context, although once again these are being presented as "Scrapie" control.
The consequences are already working their way through.The recent spate of tragic deaths in young people with no family history of CJD can’t be explained by the state’s cover-up agents, especially as it is usually a disease of old age. These heartbreakingly young deaths suggest that exposure has led to a galloping form of brain degeneration almost without precedence.Why some people should develop CJD to such an extent, so quickly, is worrying and indicative and raises questions about who may be most susceptible to what sort of level of exposure to infected food before rogue prions take hold.
Is this a new thing? In scale maybe, but in 1978 the US government stopped supplying their troops with beef from certain sources. They must have seen these as “suspect" and we can only wonder just how aware the authorities everywhere have been of the danger to humans from potentially diseased livestock in the industrial capitalist system of food production. Still stateside, there are suggestions that many people diagnosed as having certain forms of Alzheimer’s Disease are in fact suffering from a type of CJD. We should not be surprised.
The ethics of those with socio-economic power and the ethos of their system have been thrown into the spotlight through their handling of this affair. Not least by the fact that the little research now being done on the problem has come so late in the day. The truth has surfaced through a cloud of bogus findings by the government and the Ministry of Agriculture Farming and Fisheries and the rubbishing of independent findings detrimental to those with economic and political interests at stake.
Those scientists who are not willing prostitutes to capitalism’s official bodies are only now getting across the probability of cases of CJD being a result of exposure to BSE-infected beef and related products. The view of BSE being on a par with Scrapie has gone down the toilet and other official pronouncements are gradually going the same way, especially ideas about only certain cattle body-parts carrying a risk to people. It is becoming clear that it is not just brain matter that is a danger. Exposure to the brain and nervous system of infected animals is the most potent, but ingestion of any part of a BSE-positive carcass must be viewed as a danger. At the least the previous line about liver, kidneys and flesh being unlikely to carry a health risk has no grounding in scientific proof. The reverse seems more likely, as the recent proscription of certain cuts of lamb seems to reaffirm. And this, again, raises questions about wider livestock contamination: has the brain disease returned to its source?
That this danger could arise, that health disaster is in the offing and the official abuse of "science" to sanction effective cover-up jobs tells us more than enough about just where the needs of people for safe, healthy rood rank in the priorities of food production in capitalism.