Thursday, April 10, 2008

Death By Unnatural Causes

Two people from the province of León have died recently of BSE (mad cow disease) within the space of a few weeks. The announcement of the cause of death has provoked a flurry of official announcements intended to convince the public that there is no risk, and the emphasis of almost all of these announcements has been on defending the meat industry rather than putting public health concerns first. We are told that the two latest victims of the disease were infected before more stringent controls were introduced in the year 2000. The director general of health services for Castilla León even unilaterally adapted the incubation period of the disease to 8-10 years to try and establish as fact that these people must have been infected before the new controls were introduced. He achieved his aim as sections of the press duly reported this as if it was fact. In reality many sources put the incubation period at 5-10 years, and one page I have seen with information on the disease puts it at 2-8 years; a period which would not reassure anyone about the effectiveness of controls in slaughterhouses.

It’s a familiar pattern to those of us who lived through the original BSE crisis in Britain. I can still vividly remember the Tory minister John Gummer force feeding hamburgers to his children in a bid to convince the public that there was no problem with eating beef. I wonder how they are doing? The almost criminal way in which the government of the time treated the issue in their attempts to defend above all the interests of the food industry is enough reason to treat official announcements with distrust. However, another reason why I suspect the information we are given is that I have a bit of inside knowledge about how things worked in the UK in the aftermath of the initial BSE crisis.

Not a lot of people outside of the industry know this, but much of the meat hygiene inspection in British abattoirs in the 1990’s was being done by Spanish vets. This was a result of the privatisation of the inspection service, in order to make things much more “efficient” it was deemed necessary to give huge sums of money to private companies who then employed the cheapest vets they could find to do the work. These vets were then sent in to try and implement the regulations in rural abattoirs where people who came from the next village were often viewed with suspicion, never mind foreigners coming in and telling them how to kill their animals! The vets weren’t even there for most of the time so anything could happen; regardless of the best efforts of the vets concerned. Yet another triumph for free enterprise, it may still be Spanish vets doing the job although I suspect that they have probably found cheaper Eastern Europeans to do it now.

I’m not suggesting that inspection in the Spanish abattoirs works in the same way, for all I know it may work fantastically well. However, with Spain we are talking about a country where there is always a significant distinction between a law existing on something, and it actually being applied. None of this is intended to suggest that there is a serious problem now, even with the latest deaths the total number of fatalities attributed to the disease in Spain is still only three (although you have to qualify this with the likelihood that others may well have died from the disease without it being diagnosed as BSE). I generally still have more confidence in the food industry in Spain, because not so many products disguise what they are containing as in the UK. Despite this, I would have thought that two deaths occurring so close together and in the same province would at least provoke some concern about whether the control system is actually working or not.

So that will be two steak fillets and a kilo of reassuring lies please. Buen provecho.


Graeme said...

Comment from Colin copied from next post:


You recently wrote about BSE, I think, and about the employment of Spanish vets in the UK in the 90s. I fancied when I read your comments that Private Eye had said something relevant on this subject sometime in the last few years. By huge coincidence, they've returned to the theme in the current issue [p9], where they repeat their comment that "In 1993 farmers had to pay further huge sums for animals to be inspected by a new army of veterinary officials, because this is the way meat inspection has traditionally been carried out on the Continent. Abattoir owners had to shell out up to 65 pounds an hour to watch the new officials, often recruited from Spain and speaking little English, standing around doing not much, on top of having to pay their normal British meat inspectors to do the real work. . . Within a few years, the number of abattoirs still in business collapsed from 1,200 to less than 400, leaving much of the countryside without a slaughterhouse to serve the needs of local farmers." This was under a Tory government, of course. I have no idea of any facts in this field but wondered whether this wasn't a different slant from yours. . .

Graeme said...


There has always been a problem with Private Eye's reporting on farming issues, because the person doing it always presented farmers or slaughterhouse owners as poor, innocent victims of menacing (usually European) bureaucrats. If the vets who came in to do meat inspection weren't doing very much it's because they often encountered hostility and a lack of cooperation in the abattoirs - language was far from being the only problem. The old system was, I believe, for environmental health inspectors to do the checks but the BSE crisis meant that you needed to have strict methods of separating good parts of the animal from (potentially) bad so it makes perfect sense to have vets involved in supervising that. What doesn't make sense is to farm the work out to private companies who have zero interest in whether the job is done well or not, and whose only interest is to cream off as high a profit margin as possible. I have no idea whether what they say about the number of slaughterhouses being reduced because of this process is true or not, but it is hamfisted, dogmatic privatisation which is behind the problem, not the process of inspection. The idea that abattoirs didn't really need any supervision comes from those who dismissed BSE as not being a serious issue and who put narrow industry interests before public health.