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BSE in Japan: BSE in Japan: What to do in a Scare

16.oct.01, Justin Kastner and Doug Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

16.oct.01, Justin Kastner and Doug Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
CNN-Asia at last gets to join its European-based counterparts in reporting the strangely-pronounced cattle disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).  As in Europe, Asia-based reporters have already resorted to the more familiar, mad cow disease, as Japan reported its first case in cattle last month.  While the preferred journalism parlance for the disease is being settled, a more important issue must be addressed: how will Japan and the world manage the latest mad cow scare?

A scare it is, for already there is talk of depressed beef prices, signs of plunging consumer confidence, and a sense that the specter of BSE will continue to haunt the world economy. Just ask health regulators in the United Kingdom or continental Europe and they will tell all about being part of a scare. If they are honest, they will also share what to do (and not do) during such a scare, based on their years of experience with BSE. Others, including those fortunate North Americans who have avoided BSE thus far, should be invited to offer advice as well.

In the UK -- and it appears to be the same in Japan -- BSE took root via feeding practices that involved the feeding to cattle protein from cattle infected with BSE as well as protein from sheep infected with scrapie (a disease closely related to BSE). For years regulators understood this connection (in veterinarian lingo, the "ruminant-to-ruminant" feeding link), prompting the Brits to ban such feed in 1989, yet they failed to enforce the rules on the books at least until 1996, when public health research demonstrated that the consumption of BSE-infected beef was strongly linked to a new variant of the human disease Creutzfelt-Jacob disease or vCJD.

In North America, regulators became worried earlier, recognizing that any input of BSE-infected feed into cattle production might spawn an outbreak of BSE. As a result, in 1989 the U.S. banned imports of cattle from the U.K. However, ruminant-to-ruminant feeding continued to go on in the U.S. and Canada, with the assurance that as long as feed inputs were not infected, there was no real cause for concern. In 1996, after the suggestion of a link between BSE and vCJD, the stakes became higher and all ruminant-to-ruminant (e.g., the feeding of sheep parts to cattle) was banned. While there was concern that the ban is not water-tight -- for example, some Texas ranchers were recently rebuked for not observing the ban -- the North American precautionary approach, decried in some quarters at the time, has proven effective.

Both the UK and North American experiences converge on the central importance of banning ruminant-to-ruminant feeding practices. However, for Japan, as with the UK, there is now a larger problem, and the central issue in the scare: the possibility of humans contracting vCJD through BSE-infected beef. In the UK, this was dealt with by massive culls of cattle herds and a decision to remove from the human food supply any cattle born before bans on ruminant-based feed were seriously enforced.  Japan should do the same. That is, it should cull all BSE-infected animals, curtail any ruminant-to-ruminant feeding practices, and set a new "safety" date after which newly born animals can enter the food supply. Given the uncertainty surrounding the disease and the catastrophic consequences of vCJD, such drastic measures are only the beginning.

And in an era when biological agents are now front page news as agents of terrorism, the need for vigilance from farm-to-fork has never appeared greater.

Justin Kastner is a PhD student and Douglas Powell and assistant professor with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.