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Case Study: The BSE Crisis

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, is another example of a food scandal which has occurred in the agri-food sector.

BSE is a fatal neurodegenerative disease found in cattle. It is believed to have originated in the 1970’s via a freak genetic dysfunction as a consequence of recycling animal protein in ruminant feed.

In cattle, BSE causes the brain and spinal cord to degrade and become ‘spongy’, deteriorating mental and physical ability before death. It is now known to transmit to humans as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a rapid degenerative and fatal disease.

BSE Timeline

  • In 1985, the first clinical signs of BSE occurred in the United Kingdom when “Cow 133” died after suffering head tremors, weight loss and lack of co-ordination.

  • In 1986, after further clinical signs of BSE, the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) detected it as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE).

  • By March 1988, 600 probable cases of BSE were reported and the government announced the slaughter policy for animals showing BSE symptoms. Meal and bone meal was thought to be the only viable hypothesis for cause of BSE. Thus a ban was placed on meal and bone meal as a precaution.

  • In 1989, Europe banned the export of British cattle born before July 1988 and the offspring of infected animal. A further ban on high risk offal (brain, spiral cords and spleen) entering the human food chain was enforced.

  • In the early 1990’s, widespread concern around BSE transmission to humans arose when a domestic cat was diagnosed with suffering a ‘scrapie like’ spongiform encephalopathy; and almost 1,000 new cases of BSE were being reported each week. However, the UK minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time made a public showing of his four year old daughter eating a beef burger to reassure the public that beef was safe to eat.

  • In 1993, BSE reached its peak with 100,000 confirmed cases.

  • In 1995, the first victim of variant CJD, BSE’s human equivalent, died.

  • By 1996, the vCJD statistics was increasing. The Secretary of State for Health announced it is probable that BSE can be transmitted to humans, leading to an inevitably fatal disease known as vCJD. The essential step of banning the incorporation of animal protein in all animal feed became enforced.

  • As of 2018, a total of 231 cases of vCJD have been reported globally.

Loss of Trust

The BSE crisis had significant impact on the consumers trust in the food chain and governing bodes. Trust is hard to regain. However, it is important to continue to highlight that the food sector has learnt from these previous events.

European Regulation 178/2002 established the legal framework that prioritises food safety, and is a prerequisite for a product to be placed on the market. The aim of the regulation is to protect consumers’ health and avoid future scandals.

Recently the European Commission has launched a fitness check for food law in Europe, in order to assess the efficacy of the action towards the protection of consumers health. The main outcomes, among others, were:

  • The general food law regulation allows for high protection of human health;
  • Current food safety levels are more favourable than before;
  • The risk analysis principle in EU food law has raised the overall level of protection of public health
  • EFSA has improved the scientific basis of EU measures;
  • Better traceability of food and feed and better transparency of the EU decision-making cycle;
  • Emergency measures and existing crisis management have achieved consumer health protection and the efficient management and containment of food safety incidents.

The implementation of the general food law regulation has also reduced the disruption of trade due to food safety problems. Overall, an increase of 72% in the value of the food and drink trade has been measured over the past 10 years.

Nevertheless, a zero risk situation will never exist. There is a need for a continuous re-evaluation of food crises management.

What we would like you to do

Please share your thoughts on the following questions in the discussion area below:

  • Have you ever heard of BSE crises before?
  • Were you aware that hazards in animal feed could present a human health risk?
  • What do you think the government learnt from this event?

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

EIT Food