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History Lesson: Complacent About Current Food Regulations? Then You're Ignoring the Lesson of Vigilance

01.dec.01, Douglas Powell, Food Engineering, p. 26

Mad cow disease cannot cross the species barrier.
It couldn't happen here.
Apparently we were wrong, but please, believe us when we say, everything is going to be just smashing.
The recent discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) in a Japanese Holstein cow, the first such incident in Asia, is a sobering reminder of some food safety basics:
There is always a risk, one that needs to be managed through constant vigilance; and, regulations and guidelines are only as good as their verification. In the absence of something like BSE or foot-and-mouth disease, journalists and some ag officials are the first to proclaim the superiority of their national systems -- until the ailment invariably appears on their own soil. But the use of one country's animal disease failures to bolster another's sense of regulatory pride deviates from the lesson of vigilance and should always be tempered by the humility that the worst can happen to any country.
The European country of Belgium can look to their own heritage for the proper blend of pride and humility. Over a century ago, in the midst of the 1865-7 cattle plague that rocked Europe, Belgium found itself spared by the scourges of disease unlike many of its neighbours. As with foot and mouth disease today, the Belgians were quick to praise their own success in keeping the cattle plague under control. In fact, the Belgian Interior Minister, Mr. Van Denpeereboom, proudly noted that Belgium had lost just 2,300 head of cattle to the plague while England and Holland had lost more than 230,000 head to the scourge.
While Mr. Van Denpeereboom had reason to be proud, he had more reason to remain vigilant. Then, as today, economic relations had spun a complex web
of buying and selling animals and meat. The 1860s were a decade of free trade, and it was en vogue in Western Europe to repeal customs duties on food imports. In 1860, Britain and England signed a 'most-favoured nation' commercial treaty, agreeing to charge each other no more than the lowest import duties granted to their other trading partners. Two years later, in 1862, Germany signed a similar trade agreement with France, and Belgium joined the club by repealing its import duties on grain. Commercial diplomacy such as this prompted increased cross-border trading in agricultural products, including cattle and meat. By 1865 the ravages of the cattle plague were painfully obvious and demanded regulatory controls.
In September of that year, a Brussels-based diplomat indicated how susceptible Belgium was to the cattle plague, by virtue of its trade relationships, stating that, "The cattle plague, which is causing such great ravages in England, has appeared in this country [Belgium], having spread from Holland, where it was brought by some Dutch cattle sent to London for sale, and reimported."
This susceptibility motivated Belgium to quickly prohibit "the entry and transit of cattle, (in certain parts sheep and swine,) hides, fresh meat, and offal, hay, straw, and manure, at the maritime frontiers and the land frontiers."
These measures, along with restrictions on cattle markets and fairs, resulted in Belgium's success at keeping the cattle plague under control.
However, the Belgian Interior Minister did not capitalize on England's and Holland's failures and use their failures as a basis for boosting Belgian pride. Rather, Mr. Van Denpeereboom issued the following warning, in June of 1866:
'It is not impossible that some isolated cases [of cattle plague] may still appear in [in our country]. Those fears are only too much justified by the experience of the past; they must make us persisted in the measures of precaution and vigilance which have enabled us to escape until now, at the cost of not very onerous sacrifices the ravages of a pestilence whose victims are counted elsewhere by thousands.' Mr. Van Denpeereboom was wise.
He understood that regulatory success is like any other kind of success:
always based on one's most recent performance. All regulators should take heed of this, especially those European countries tempted to haughtily compare their animal health regulatory systems to those of Britain. And as countries grapple with the insidiousness of BSE, they would do well to ensure that the regulations drawn up in Washington are enforced on the farm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has done just that, and made the results public. Other countries would be wise to follow suit.

The recent discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) in a Japanese Holstein cow, the first such incident in Asia, is a sobering reminder of some food safety basics.

Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. PhD student Justin Kastner contributed to this article.