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The precautionary principle - the lessons of BSE

BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease) became widespread among cattle in the UK in the mid-1980s. It had probably been spread to cattle through the use in feed of minced sheep infected with Scrapie, a similar brain disease which has been around for centuries. Both these diseases are probably spread by a prion, a deformed protein, and they both lead to a gradual destruction of the brain of victims.

Once the existence of the BSE outbreak was revealed, there was concern that it might spread to humans. There was already a similar disease known in man, CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), a fatal neurodegenerative disorder. For 10 years the UK government position was:

"There is currently no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes CJD in humans. That issue is not in question" (John Major, The Prime Minister, Dec.1995)

Some (poorly policed) restrictions were placed on human consumption of beef offal (e.g. brains) to reduce transmission to humans, but the emphasis was that there was not a problem....

Until Wednesday 20 th of March 1996, when, after 10 cases of a new form of CJD in young people, the then Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell said that:

"The most likely explanation is that these cases [of CJD] are linked to exposure to BSE before the offal ban in 1989"

This statement has led to the virtual collapse of the British beef industry, a total export ban and a cost of at least 3.5 billion pounds. No-one knows whether the number of CJD cases will be in the tens, hundreds or thousands - as at 7th October 1999 there were 44 confirmed cases and two probable cases of the new variant of CJD in the UK, and one case in France; for the latest figures see the web site of the UK Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit.

Even after the Government acceptance of the probable link, the Beef Industry initially continued to produce posters stating 'There is no proof of a link between BSE and CJD', whilst not mentioning that the link was 'likely'. Statements of this sort are very dangerous for industry, since if (or when) new evidence appears, they have to back down, and the industry looses public confidence. New evidence then appeared (Nature, Vol. 383, p666-667, and p685-689, 24th October 1996) providing very strong evidence that the new CJD variant is the same prion strain as BSE, and different from the other CJD variants. The UK Government accepted that this result virtually proves the link.

Why did the UK Government get itself into this mess?

  • They refused to apply the precautionary principle - it was shown that BSE could transfer to a wide range of other animals, but they assumed it would not transmit to humans
  • They kept using phrases such as 'no evidence of human transmission', whilst not acknowledging that there was no evidence either way ('absence of evidence is not evidence of absence')
  • They did not carry out much important research, possibly because they did not want to learn the answers: e.g. examining the brains of cattle in slaughter houses, to establish the true rate of BSE infection, rather than just those cows that went visibly 'mad', or testing whether primates could get BSE.

The BSE enquiry

The Labour Government which came to power in the UK in May 1997 has initiated a major public enquiry into the BSE crisis. It has its own comprehensive and regularly updated web site.

An excellent source of the latest news and information on BSE/CJD is the site run by Steve Dealler (a Medical Microbiologist).

Relevance to the potential risks of hormone disrupting chemicals

There is considerable evidence from cell culture and animal studies that the chemicals described in these pages disrupt hormone signalling pathways. Therefore, as I have outlined elsewhere in these pages (and on the Friends of the Earth site), I believe these chemicals should be phased out because they could potentially be damaging humanity, and, in many case, have been shown to damage wildlife.

The response of Government and Industry to these opinions is that 'we require proof of human harm'. The BSE crisis, with its massive cost in terms of cash, and increasing cost in lives, demonstrates the folly of waiting for visible harm to humans.


Whenever someone makes a statement 'there is no evidence that.....', ensure that they are not actually saying 'there is no evidence either way'.

This page was last updated in October 1999
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URL: http://website.lineone.net/~mwarhurst/bse.html