Between the years of 1995 and 2009, 177 Britons, mainly under the age of 30, died from vCJD (Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), after eating beef infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. And as a BBC2 documentary, “Mad Cow Disease – The Great British Beef Scandal”, to be aired tonight (11th July) reveals, this was a man-made disease, caused by reckless agricultural policies that put commercialism ahead of public health.
In the late 1980s, scientists were deeply concerned about the possibility of BSE, a dreadfully fatal disease of cattle in the UK, affecting humans. Indeed, one microbiologist, Dr Stephen Dealler, went on television to express his concerns. The evidence was coming to light that the disease was transferable to humans, and he was worried as 1.5 million people could have already eaten infected beef. His views contradicted the agricultural policies of the then Thatcher government and the food industry, who both were determined to promote and maintain the production of British beef to feed the country’s insatiable appetite for meat since the 1970s. Dr Dealler was claimed he was silenced after his television appearance, being moved from a research role to administration.
A huge propaganda campaign ensued, with staged scenarios including MPs seen eating steak tartare on the terraces of the Palace of Westminster and the then Agricultural Minister John Gummer trying to feed a burger to his young daughter at an event in his constituency, albeit unsuccessfully. The message was that scaremongers were out to discredit the agriculture industry and worry people unnecessarily.
The food industry pressured farmers to feed cattle, natural herbivores, protein-rich mechanically-recovered meat and bone from cattle carcasses to help speed growth. Derived from mainly spinal cords, the most infectious element of the carcass, it is now known that this aided the rapid spread of BSE and the eventual cull of 4.4 million cattle.
And Thatcher’s government ensured that children were in the firing line, after abolishing minimum nutritional standards and privatising school catering. Children were typically fed meat pies and sausages containing the deadly mulch. Eventually, after pressure from scientists and the overwhelming evidence, in 2000 the government was held to account and forced to acknowledge that BSE could lead to vCJD.
But it took a further 14 years of campaigning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee was forced to criticise the Thatcher government’s approach, and recognise the harm agricultural policies had caused. And it is now recognised that the incubation period foe vCJD can be up to 50 years, so more deaths are likely to follow.
If the government had listened to the specialists 40 years ago, and the current popularity of a plant-based diet had been prevalent back then, the disaster of vCJD would have been minimised. But the legacy lives on, and it is of little surprise that more and more people are turning to veganism as a mistrust in the food industry lingers. As always, Bute Island Foods will continue to do all it can to promote a healthy plant-based diet through its range of dairy-free Sheese and advocacy of the end of animal cruelty for profit.