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Update on BSE by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 93 (Summer 2002)

The horrors of the Foot and Mouth crisis and the publicised slaughter of millions of animals have faded from memory. The question of how it started and whether it could return hangs in the air. The Northumberland farm where the disease most likely started was found to be most unhygienic. Apart from our own problems of enforcing strict hygiene, we still have imports from countries where conditions and controls are even less reassuring. So there is no guarantee that we will not see a return of the scenes that so stirred the nation. Sadly, few made the connection to the fact that these animals were in any case destined for slaughter within a short time.

And what about the previous disaster of animal farming - BSE or mad cow disease? Can we assume that problem has been solved, never to return? We are assured that the problem is under control and that cases have fallen from 37,000 in 1993 to 1,100 in 2001. That means the disease has not been completely eliminated, although one would suppose that the original infected animals have by now all been slaughtered. Cows over 30 months old are not allowed into the food chain. These older ones are killed, rendered down and there are over 200,000 tons of their remains in storage awaiting incineration.

It is generally assumed that BSE resulted from feeding cattle with residues from the slaughterhouse, thus turning these herbivores into carnivores. Most parts of slaughtered animals are sold but there remains a residue that needs to be disposed of. With millions of animals being regularly slaughtered, this is no small problem and viewed from a strictly economic point of view, what better way to solve this problem than to return the unwanted parts to the food chain? We can now see that this was a good recipe for spreading the disease.

Meat from cattle and sheep has been fed to adult cattle for about 100 years, but more recently it started to be fed to calves in the first weeks of life. It has now been found that most cattle who developed BSE contracted it in their early life. In most other countries calves were fed on mother's milk or milk powders for about 8 weeks of age. British farmers tried to minimise the cost of milk powder by feeding Mechanically Reconstituted Meat, which sometimes contains spinal cord material - the very parts that are now suspect of spreading the disease.

Professor Michael Crawford has linked a deficiency of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) to some of the most serious diseases of the developed world, including BSE. Particularly, the EFA omega 3, is needed as a blood-brain barrier. The switch from soya meal (which contains EFAs) to pulverised animal feed (low in EFAs) made the animals susceptible to foreign proteins, particularly brain proteins.

The theory is that the prion exists to track copper and pass it on to the brain's defence system. Lack of EFA leads to a distortion of the membrane and alters the internal environment. The prion may then leave the membrane and misfold into the harmful form that destroys the brain. That is said to be consistent with the rapid spread across the country.

Mark Purdy, the dairy farmer who refused to spread organo-phosphate on the back of his cattle, and blamed the BSE on the use of organo-phosphates, has also found a link with low intake of copper (and a high intake of manganese) and BSE.

Organic farmers do not feed animal parts to their cattle and proclaim they have had no cases of BSE. Unfortunately, the current standards for organic farming allow the spreading of blood and bone meal and animal manure as fertilisers. This problem is being addressed by the Vegan Organic Network.

Some cattle born after the strict regulations to control the disease have been found to have developed BSE. Since meat and bone meal may be used in other parts of Europe, outside contamination is always possible. Other countries were originally infected with BSE from our exports of the animal feed suspected of being the cause of BSE.

There have now been 100 deaths from nvCJD (believed to result from eating BSE contaminated meat) in humans. Young people seem to be more susceptible. Fish oils are promoted as being rich in EFAs but vegans can obtain a good source of EFAs from linseeds (also known as flaxseed).

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Cross-reference: BSE/CJD
Cross-reference: Foot and Mouth Disease