A BBC documentary examines the events surrounding the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) meat scandal and asks if we are still living with the aftermath in the form of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which has killed almost 200 people since 1996.
Mad Cow Disease: The Great British Beef Scandal looks at how this still incurable and entirely manmade disease came to be a problem. The documentary also looks at how a series of poor decisions failed to stop the infected cattle getting into the food chain.
Since 1996, almost 200 people have died from vCJD, whilst the cattle disease BSE has been responsible for the death of over four million cows. It has cost the NHS over a billion pounds and virtually destroyed the British beef industry in the 1990s.
The story starts in the 1970s, when supermarkets were emerging into the high streets and meat consumption was going through the roof. To help keep up with demand, farmers started feeding cows an artificial protein supplement made from the remains of other animals.
But in 1985, a new disease called BSE broke out on a single farm in Wiltshire. Nobody has ever discovered what caused the first case of BSE, but it spread across Britain rapidly. The cause of this spread was the meat and bone meal that cows were being fed. Infected animals were being ground up and fed to other animals, causing BSE to pass from cow to cow. By 1989, millions of animals had been infected.
What happened over the next seven years was a series of poor decisions by the then Conservative government and ministry of agriculture. They failed to stop cattle infected with BSE getting into the human food chain, and also failed to alert the public to the possible dangers posed by the disease. It was only in 1996 – when ten human victims of the human form of BSE – vCJD – had been identified that the government changed its approach.
There is no simple diagnostic test for vCJD, which was why the surveillance unit has been set up at Edinburgh University comprising neurologists, pathologists and diagnosticians. Attempts have been made to create a test, and most scientists believe the disease is caused by changes in prion proteins.
The number of deaths from definite or probable vCJD between 1995 and 2019 is 178. However, it has a long incubation period and beyond being sure that there will be more deaths, huge uncertainty remains.
In 2013 researchers reported that one in 2,000 people in the UK were carriers of vCJD, linked to eating contaminated beef. And a report by a committee of MPs in 2014 said tens of thousands of people could be "silent" carriers of the prions that cause the disease.
Despite over 20 years of scientific research, scientists are no closer to discovering a cure for it, or even a test to see who is carrying it. vCJD remains one of the great unsolved medical problems.
The documentary Mad Cow Disease: The Great British Beef Scandal can be watched on the BBC iPlayer here.