Countries in Eastern and Central Europe are being put on notice that their beef industries are at risk from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
Washington, 7 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) is warning that several countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, are at risk from mad cow disease.
The disease -- officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE -- was first discovered in Great Britain in the mid-1980s and killed 130 people. BSE occurs in animals and is passed to humans who consume beef from an infected animal.
In 1993, Britain recorded a peak number of 40,000 cases of BSE in animals. By 2001, the figure had dropped to 1,200.
The disease is not immediately detectable and can have an incubation period in both animals and humans that lasts for years. When the infection finally manifests itself, it attacks the brain and nervous system and is ultimately fatal.
Maura Ricketts is a physician and medical adviser in the WHO's Department of Communicable Disease, Surveillance, and Response in Geneva, Switzerland. Ricketts told RFE/RL that Britain exported contaminated meat and bone-meal animal feed to several nations that have yet to report any cases of infection.
"When we look at this data from U.K. Customs and Excise, we realize that, in fact, some of these materials had been shipped into quite a few other countries, including countries of Central and Eastern Europe, who received quite a lot, and countries in South and Southeast Asia, who also received quite a lot," she said.
So far, Ricketts said, only Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have officially reported cases of the disease in animals. This is unusual, she said, because Eastern and Central Europe as a whole were large importers of the contaminated feed.
"And so it's extremely important that developing countries -- particularly in the regions that we know imported potentially contaminated animal feed -- it's very important that they do their risk assessments and undertake appropriate measures," she said.
Ricketts is urging officials in these countries to report cases rather than hide them. She acknowledged that some countries may be afraid to admit they have cases of mad cow disease, fearing it might adversely affect trade. But she said reporting the cases would be a reassuring sign to the rest of the world that a country is taking the matter seriously and implementing important protective steps to detect and eliminate the problem. "Prevention is very, very, very much cheaper than cure," she said.
Today, most developed countries have strict measures in place to combat the export or import of tainted meat and feed, but the concern is that many emerging nations, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have not implemented proper measures to counter the dangers.
BSE can infect animal feed made from cattle or sheep carcasses that are recycled to recover meat and bone-meal protein. This protein is then fed back to other cattle or exported as animal feed.
While EU countries have forbidden the use of this type of feed for livestock, Ricketts said, several countries in Eastern and Central Europe, and in Asia, continue this practice, which is known as "rendering."
"If they do have a rendering industry, then they need to ask themselves whether or not they are allowing potential recycling. And an important thing to do is to remove the high-risk tissues -- the brain, spinal cord, and perhaps parts of the gut -- remove those from the carcasses that are put into the rendering so that you can be particularly more cautious about risking any recycling of this material," Ricketts said.
Ricketts said it is "extremely important" for developing and emerging countries, particularly in the regions that are known to have imported potentially contaminated animal feed, to do risk assessments and undertake appropriate measures to prevent the disease from spreading.
In terms of addressing concerns to the general public, Ricketts said, large cuts of meat from animals are typically safe to eat. But she said the kind of meat that is stripped off in the slaughterhouse using metal wires and brushes -- in a process called "advanced meat recovery" -- is the riskiest for BSE contamination. Ricketts said that if these metal wires and brushes are used around the animal's spinal column, they could pull out pieces of nerve tissue that could contaminate the meat. These smaller pieces of beef are typically used in products containing ground meat.
According to Ricketts, a potential epidemic can be avoided if the countries of Eastern and Central Europe and parts of Asia act immediately to first take a close look at what their livestock eats. Second, she says, they must determine exactly how their rendering industries operate.