Worldwide Ban on British Beef

"Be careful, some of 'ems in a nasty mood," warned a police constable to those venturing into Smithfield Market in London last week. The sprawling shed with its grand Victorian lattice has been the centre of Britain's meat trade since the last century.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 8, 1996

Worldwide Ban on British Beef

"Be careful, some of 'ems in a nasty mood," warned a police constable to those venturing into Smithfield Market in London last week. The sprawling shed with its grand Victorian lattice has been the centre of Britain's meat trade since the last century. These days, however, Smithfield feels more like ground zero in a Stephen King horror story. Panic over a meat-borne infection with the tabloid-catchy nickname "mad cow disease" - legitimately a horrible illness that bores holes in its victims' brains, causing a dementia ended only by the certain death that follows - has convulsed Britain and frightened its neighbors. The pall hangs over the white-smocked men of Smithfield as they lean into the early morning cold, pulling wooden carts weighted with haunches and ribs - mostly pork, lamb and venison now. Very little English beef hangs from the market's steel hooks. "Not much point, really," muttered one stone-faced trader. "Nobody to buy it."

The man in the blood-streaked uniform spoke the one irrefutable truth about the state of the British beef industry last week. Scientists continued to haggle over the causes and effects of the disease. Labour party politicians blamed the Tory government for the crisis and the Tories blamed the continental Europeans. But rare was the Briton willing to carve into a side of beef. The market had collapsed. "The argument has moved on," admitted Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell. "The issue is no longer the safety of British beef. The question now is of consumer confidence."

The European Union certainly showed none. Union commissioners slapped a worldwide ban on British beef and a range of beef byproducts - everything from pills to digestive biscuits to wine gums. And as beef sales slumped across Europe, there were fears that the hysteria was no longer confined to Britain. "Nobody wanted to isolate Britain or put it in the dock," said Sir Leon Brittan, the European Union's external affairs commissioner. "Europe wanted to help." The European Union offered Britain an unspecified amount of financial aid to ease the cost of the crisis, and said it would re-examine the ban in six weeks. By then, it expects the British government to have taken the "necessary steps" to restore public confidence.

"Necessary steps" is code for a slaughter. Prime Minister John Major's government has tried desperately to avoid destroying any significant part of Britain's 11.8-million-strong cattle herd. Killing and incinerating hundreds of thousands of carcasses - and there were grave doubts about whether that was physically possible - would cost the treasury several billion dollars in compensation to the industry's 600,000 workers. But Major appeared to have no choice but to begin at least a selective cull of older cows. The National Farmers' Union itself suggested a plan to incinerate the carcasses of 15,000 cows each week for the next three years, a scheme that would cost about $4.4 billion. But even that relatively modest cull horrified some industry leaders. "It is absolute nonsense in scientific terms," said Bob Stevenson, president of the British Veterinary Association. "I would hope veterinarians would do their part if called upon by the government, but it is traumatic for vets and farmers to dispatch healthy animals for no reason other than to restore human confidence."

Major also blamed "the collective hysteria, partly media, partly Opposition, partly European," for destroying faith in one of Britain's proudest industries. But his government, too, bears responsibility for the panicked human herd. Fears that humans could contract BSE - bovine spongiform encephalopathy for scientists, or mad cow disease in more manageable diction - have been around since the mid-1980s. Government ministers dampened those worries every time, perhaps most famously in 1990 when then-agriculture minister John Gummer posed for photos with his four-year-old daughter, Cordelia, helping fit a ketchup-smeared burger into her mouth. But the decade of denials unravelled on March 20, when Dorrell told the House of Commons that scientists had uncovered 10 new human cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome, a fatal human brain disease, which most probably were contracted from the cow disease.

The reaction from a population that relishes its meat pies, sausage rolls and American-chain burgers was swift, inconsolable panic. It was magnified by repeated television images of sick, staggering cows, and compounded by the absence of any soothing scientific answers. Professors and researchers paraded before the media predicting everything from an AIDS-style epidemic to virtually no risk. The scientists were still not sure that the cow disease was linked to the 10 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, though they offered no other explanation. They did not agree on whether BSE was present only in spinal cord and brain tissues of cattle, or if it could move into leaner loins and muscle. They did not even agree on whether the disease could be passed into lambs, or the grass, or the water table.

And the government was just as confused. First, the sublimely named agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg ("You would not believe how many bad jokes I've heard this week," groaned one official at 10 Downing Street), openly speculated about the need to cull 4.5 million cows. More panic ensued, this time in cabinet. Hogg was reportedly browbeaten by penny-minded ministers for suggesting such an expensive idea. Instead, Health Secretary Dorrell was thrust forward to insist that safety precautions were adequate and that eating beef carried only minuscule risks. "It isn't the cows that are mad, it's the people," he suggested. "Mad, Mr. Dorrell?" countered the Daily Mirror. "We're bloody FURIOUS."

With ministers contradicting each other over a public health issue, the government's credibility shrivelled. (The fact that the Daily Mail identified 34 Tory MPs with personal farming interests did not help.) British Airways stopped serving British beef. The fast-food burger outlets professed their faith in the high quality of British beef - and dropped it from their menus, citing customer concerns. Within days, their windows were plastered with posters proclaiming "Non-British Beef." The German soccer team's chef mischievously announced that he would be airlifting his own beef from Bavaria to England for the month-long European championships this June. More seriously, farmers were becoming so distraught that a national telephone help line was set up to provide counselling.

"We don't have a history of revolution in this country, we have a history of riots, and this is a sort of riot," said David Lidgate, an international award-winning West London butcher who specializes in organic produce that is BSE-free. "There are going to be a lot of good farmers with safe, healthy herds who will lose their businesses because of this." Lidgate, a fourth-generation butcher, blamed part of the hysteria on the divide between consumers and modern farmers. "People feel they have no contact with the farm any more, so there is a mistrust about what they are buying," he said as customers trickled though his shop where they normally queue shoulder to shoulder.

But Lidgate had no explanation for the uncharacteristically volatile public mood. "Two weeks ago, all you ever heard was how you should boycott lamb because they were mistreated on the way to market, and how American beef was bad because it is loaded with growth hormones," he said with a wry smile. "Then the papers are full of BSE and suddenly nobody wants to buy British beef. Do you think anybody gives a damn about growth hormones now? And if they start incinerating thousands of animals, watch everyone panic about what might be getting into the atmosphere."

Lidgate believes the hysteria will subside over time, as it did in a previous salmonella scare. And, like many farmers and Tory MPs, he suggested that beef-producing countries were jumping at the chance to wound their British competitors. But others argued that this was a made-in-Britain crisis. "These guys are in big, big trouble," said an Italian-born meat buyer named Bruno, waving a purchase order at a group of packers at Smithfield. The time to act, he said, was before the public became alarmed. "But they'd rather blame someone else - the French, or the Ities like me."

Restoring confidence in the industry will be difficult, at best. A government that encourages its citizens to buy long-shot lottery tickets with the slogan "It could be you" is hardly credible when it then tells the same audience that the odds of contracting a deadly disease are merely remote. The most prudent course seemed simply to avoid British beef, at least until scientists had a better grasp of how BSE operates. Certainly that was the attitude taken by the staff at the Royal Agricultural College in Gloucestershire. Just after the scare broke, the Queen came to lunch to mark the school's 150th anniversary. Gloucestershire is renowned beef country, but the menu that day was salmon and pork. The Queen expressed great interest, say those who were there, on the merits of ostrich meat as a substitute for beef.

Maclean's April 8, 1996