BSE is old news. As early as the 17th century, scrapie disease was described in sheep.1 However, the agents causing its sponge-like brain symptoms were not reported until the 1980s, work for which Stanley Prusiner was later to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He named the infectious proteins “prions.” After the first recognized case, in 1986, of a prion disease in a British cow, “bovine spongiform encephalopathy” (BSE), bovine cases in the U.K. soared to a peak of 36,680 in 1992 alone.2
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Explore This IssueDecember/January 2007
A smaller number of BSE infected cows have since been detected in other countries including Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Switzerland, and also the United States, Canada and Japan. Proposed to have arisen due to the addition of animal protein to feed (presumably including that from scrapie infected sheep), it also resulted in unusual occurrences of a rare, normally hereditary and old-age-related human disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), in young people, thus the human form was labeled “variant” CJD (vCJD). These confirmed human cases, which up until the present, number around 160 in the U.K., some of which are presumed to have contracted the prions through consumption of infected meat products.
What if processed foods, which often contain additives produced from animals we do not realize and may not want to consume, are contaminated by, for example, these prions and other pathogens? This worries consumers and brings to the industry many uncertainties; producers and suppliers themselves might not even know whether the food they produce or sell is free from these contents. How then, would the industry be able to provide foods free from targeted organisms or contaminants to better protect itself and boost consumers’ confidence?
Can Government Regulations and Policies Alleviate Such Worries?
Consider again the BSE example. Beef producing and exporting nations were hit very hard by the BSE crisis. During the BSE outbreaks of the 80s and 90s, the U.K. government implemented a mass slaughtering of cow herds in the U.K. and at present, most European countries, including the U.K., state that they test all slaughter cattle over 30 months of age (Japan states that it tests all slaughtered cattle). This is intended to identify infected but asymptomatic animals, and to remove the risk of contaminated meat entering the food chain.3 This testing is approximately $50 per cow. In addition, EU countries have implemented BSE-related control measures on animal feed. In the U.K., there is a comprehensive ban on processed animal proteins in all feed for farmed ruminants, excluding milk powder, processed eggs and egg products.4 Certain blood products may be fed to farmed fish, pigs and poultry. EU regulations meanwhile state that no animal by-products not intended for human consumption may be used in animal feed.5
Despite all the measures put in place to reassure consumers, dangers apparently persist and over the past few years, various scandals have come to light regarding the quality of our food and the constant need for strict controls and more stringent testing procedures. For instance, the common practice of adding water to chicken carcasses, ostensibly to prevent drying out, led in the 1990s to the practice of injecting the carcasses with additive powders and proteins from other animals to enable the carcass to absorb as much water as possible, even up to 50 percent. The proteins were from the cheap waste parts of other animals, often from cows, and were undetectable by the protein detection tests usually used. This practice was first made public in the U.K. by a team from the BBC documentary series, Panorama in 2000.6 They found factories in certain European countries including Germany, Spain and Holland, which imported cheap chicken carcasses from Thailand and Brazil and after treatment, exported the chickens across the EU.
The Need for Species Identification
Apart from cow contents, we could find plenty of examples in our everyday life that tells us how important it is for species identification. For instance, in processed food the characteristics of the product, such as color, odor, taste and texture may all be very different from the original material.