After all, President Bush is still eating beef. On Jan. 2, though having been on a successful hunt for quail at Falfurrias, Texas, he declared, "As a matter of fact, I ate beef today, and will continue to eat beef." Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, announced that despite the mad cow scare, the U.S. food supply was safe and public risk from the discovery of the disease was low.
For this particular Brit, those positive proclamations rang too many apprehensive bells. In May 1990, the British minister of Agriculture in John Major's Conservative government appeared on television enthusiastically encouraging his 4-year-old daughter Cordelia to bite greedily into a hamburger. British beef, he claimed merrily, was "completely safe."
Just five years later, in another May, the first recorded victim of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease died. Like most of the other 119 British victims as of December 2002, Stephen Churchill was pitifully young -- 19. In December 1995, the year of his death, Prime Minister John Major declaimed, "There is no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes it in humans."
According to the Human BSE Foundation, around 1 million cattle are estimated to have been infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy since the disease was first diagnosed in 1986.
The first confirmed victim of BSE was cow No. 133 on the Stent farm in Sussex, England, on Dec. 22, 1984. She was noticed that day to have developed head tremors and a loss of coordination. By Feb. 11, 1985, she was dead. The following September, a government pathologist found that the cause of her death was spongiform encephalopathy which, as the name suggests, turns the brain into a sponge. When, in November of the following year, bovine spongiform encephalopathy was officially recognized as a new cattle disease, the information was placed officially "under embargo." The public was not informed. It wasn't until June 1987 that Britain's agriculture ministers were told of the new disease.
Only in May 1988 did the government see fit to establish the Southwood working party to look into BSE. In February of the following year, it announced that BSE was unlikely to pose a threat to humans but recommended setting up an expert committee to advise on SE research. That advisory committee found in May 1992 that existing safeguards against spongiform encephalopathy should protect human health. In the same month three years later, Stephen Churchill was dead.
On Nov. 10, 1997, BBC's prestigious news and investigations program, "Panorama," revealed the devastating effects of the disease, showing one patient, a 34-year-old mother with two small children, drooling, bloated, incapable, and entirely unaware of her family around her.
Still by 2000, according to a report in the journal Nature, scientists appeared unaware of what constitutes a lethal dose of BSE-infected meat, or even the incubation period of the disease. Clare Tomkins, also British, was diagnosed at 22 as having new variant CJD. She had been a strict vegetarian for the previous 11 years.
According to a survey from 1989 to November 2003 by the World Organization for Animal Health, there have been 1,325 cases in Ireland, 848 in France, 522 in Portugal, 451 in Switzerland, 103 in Belgium. There have been 70 in the Netherlands, 13 in Denmark and more in other European countries. The first case of BSE in cattle was reported in Japan in September 2001; the first in Israel in May 2002.
Given the global nature of the food business, it seems unwise to assume that one instance of BSE in Washington state is a lone occurrence. But knowing what the British have gone through, with the wholesale slaughter of cattle, the loss of farmers' livelihoods and, worse, the dreadful loss of life through the human variant of the disease, let's hope that this is the case.