The 'Mad Cow' Crisis:
A Global Perspective
The mad cow crisis has been described as an irrational, collective scare; a lethal epidemic with potential casualties in the thousands or hundreds of thousands; a criminal or quasi-criminal cover-up; an epitome of government negligence and bureaucratic incompetence; a tragic outcome of Conservative, laissez-faire policy and capitalist greed; as well as a pitiable failure of veterinary medicine and science. As the crisis unfolded, the only safe statement that could be made was that none of these characterizations was established but that none could be clearly and totally ruled out. The most striking feature of the crisis was that the risk involved could be assessed with no better accuracy than being within a range from zero to infinity.
A bit of background might help the American reader at this point, although I realize that there was rather extensive media coverage of the crisis in the United States and around the world. The disease, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), was first identified in November 1986 in Britain. This degenerative neural disease has slow incubation (about five years) and is always fatal. It belongs to a category of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE). The most common TSE disease is scrapie, which has been recognized in sheep since the early eighteenth century and in humans as kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a rare disease (about 1 case per 1 million) that is also always fatal. Kuru was studied in the 1950s by Victor Zigas and Carleton Gajdusek in the Fore tribe of Papua-New Guinea, who practiced endocannibalism, since they ate the bodies of deceased members of the tribe. Zigas and Gajdusek (who was later to receive a Nobel prize for his findings) observed that kuru was particularly prevalent in women and