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5. Mad Cows and Englishmen: BSE and the Politics of Discord

Published onApr 16, 2020
5. Mad Cows and Englishmen: BSE and the Politics of Discord

Fear and economic dislocation gripped British and then other European populations throughout the latter half of the 1990s as a result of the emergence of a novel epizootic, generated by infectious prions, that generated “scrapie” in sheep, Mad Cow Disease in bovines, and the horrific Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease in humans. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (“Mad Cow Disease”) is a uniformly lethal disease of cattle that is generated by prions (rogue proteins that infect normal proteins and cause them to shift their structure or alignment to a malign form). The malignant protein then causes significant damage to the cellular structures of the brain of the infected host. Over time, this damage manifests in a progressive loss of motor control, and ultimately in death. Although classified as pathogenic, prions are not understood as infectious” in the normal sense of the term as it is applied to other infectious diseases discussed herein. Nonetheless, prions are transmissible, and their vectors of transmission remain opaque.

BSE would seem to have resulted from the suspect practice of feeding cattle meat-and-bone meal that contained prion-laden offal from infected sheep.1 Since the mid 1980s, it has become evident that prions appear to be capable of jumping the species barrier from sheep to cattle through processes of zoonosis. Prions have sporadically colonized small groups within the human ecology, often via the global human food supply. Consumption of prion-tainted meats may result in infection of the human host and in subsequent manifestation of prion-induced illness, which is characterized as Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (VCJD). Eventually, human victims uniformly fall prey to catastrophic neurological damage, which manifests in a decline of mental capacity and motor function and ultimately leads to the rather gruesome death of the host.

As of December 8, 2005, approximately 187,000 cases of BSE had been reported in cattle, spanning 26 countries, with 97.86 percent of those cases occurring in Britain. As of early 2006, approximately 160 human individuals had been diagnosed with VCJD, more than 90 percent of them in Britain.2

On Fear and Risk

Historically, fear has been the handmaiden of contagion, amplifying the initial effects of the empirical morbidity and mortality generated by the pathogenic agents in question. Human populations in the past exhibited fear in the face of the uncertainty generated by novel agents of contagion, and this process remains very much in effect in the modern era, particularly when societies are presented with a lethal, incurable, and poorly understood pathogen such as prions. The level of fear experienced on a collective or societal level seems to be a direct function of the levels of uncertainty associated with the emergence of a new disease, inhibiting effective calculations of risk.3

Thus, inaccuracies in the perception (and more often misperception) of risk becomes central as an explanatory variable, particularly in the case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). BSE is indeed a classic case of the perils of trans-boundary risk management, with high levels of uncertainty, which have persisted over time, and with significant perceptions of risk, both to national economies and to human health. Such perceptions of risk, and the attendant fear, are accentuated by a lack of vaccines to prevent transmission. Moreover, there are no cures for transmissible spongiform encephalopathies as a class of illnesses, nor are there any tests (ante-mortem) to determine whether an animal (or a human) has the condition.

As Richard Posner notes, individuals tend to overweight risks associated with phenomena (such as pathogen-induced mortality) that are considered “dreadful” and “unknown.”4 Cass Sunstein explains that the inaccurate assessment of such risk often stems from “probability neglect.”5 Cognitive factors may also inhibit the human capacity to assess risks associated with novel pathogens. Posner argues that humans exhibit “imagination cost.”6 Prions, and the disease induced by such novel pathogens, certainly are novel and dreadful, and certainly would qualify.

BSE in the European Union

Britain began its arduous trials with BSE (and VCJD) in the mid 1980s, although there were sporadic reports that BSE may have existed in British cattle stocks for some time before that. The first documented case of BSE was apparently diagnosed in Sussex County in 1984.7 From that date the number of cases confirmed by the British government continued to proliferate until they exceeded 15,000 by April 1990. At that point the crisis was severe enough that the European Commission immediately imposed a ban on exports of live cattle from Britain, and mandatory registration of all BSE cases. Dissembling and obfuscation became the stock in trade for the British government during this period, as the British Minister of Health was quoted in December of 1995 as having said “there is no conceivable risk of BSE being transmitted from cows to people.”8 However, the lie was revealed in March 1996, as the Ministry of Health thereupon informed Parliament that a spate of new clinical diagnoses of VCJD in Britons probably was related to exposure to BSE.

As with other manifestations of infectious disease, the affective component, in this case extreme levels of fear and anxiety, came to the forefront of British society. Uncertainty over whether one was infected, inflamed by rampant media sensationalism, undermined rationality among the public. According to the historian John Fisher, in 1996 “the public sense of unease which had been simmering—and flaring regularly—now erupted in hysteria. Beef sales fell precipitously, and not only in Britain. Cattle production and marketing were thrown into chaos; the already delicate relationship between Britain and its partners in the European Union was brought under further strain when a total ban on the export of British cattle and beef was instituted.”9 The historian John Fisher contends that the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was completely ineffective in the initial phases of the crisis:

MAFF failed to gain or enforce compliance with its regulations in virtually every area of concern. With compensation payments often inadequate, notification of BSE has been haphazard and the export certification system has been rife with evasion. An audit in 1994 could not account for half of the specified bovine offal (SBO) from slaughtered cattle. The amounts involved were massive and the Assistant Chief Veterinary Officer conceded that most would have gone into animal feed. Claims for the perfect safety of British beef were nonsense. The gap between regulation and actual practice was glaring.10

After the revelation of the true extent and depth of the BSE problem in British cattle stocks in March, British Meat and Livestock Commission statistics indicate, the price of retail beef declined by 11 percent in 1996, and the consumption of beef products declined by 24 percent, demand having shifted to other foodstuffs.11

The crisis also had significant effects on the British government, as the people lost trust in their elected officials and in the “scientific experts” that had reassured them that BSE could not jump the species barrier and therefore posed no threat to human health. Collectively this contributed to a crisis of legitimacy. The government was seen as abrogating its duty to protect the commonweal, and the scientific community was derided as either ignorant, deliberately callous, or the pawn of agribusiness interests. O’Neill concurs and argues that the crisis led to a “loss of consumer confidence . . . and potentially more seriously, a loss of public trust in government regulators to maintain food safety. This was seen to maximum effect in the response of the British public to the government’s delayed announcement of the transmission of BSE to humans.”12 The BSE crisis therefore contributed to a dramatic decline in the perceptions of the legitimacy of the state by the affected British population. Fisher concurs, arguing that “the Conservative government, and especially MAFF . . . employed suppresio veri and suggestio falsi in order to downplay the scale of the BSE epizootic and the risk of transmission to humans in order to protect the interests of the cattle producers. Governments and their agencies have an evident and natural interest in minimizing public alarm in conditions of uncertainty, but this does not necessarily correspond to deliberate misinformation.”13 Such behavior on the part of the British state exacerbated the historical tensions between state and society in the face of epidemic disease. Ultimately, the actions of the British state reinforced the perception that the state will adopt Machiavellian and contagionist tactics in order to maintain control and protect the interests of vested and powerful domestic elites. “As knowledge of regulatory inadequacies has grown,” Fisher writes, “it has reinforced skepticism and suspicion of government and government agencies to the point where they have come to be considered the cause of the problem rather than merely an exacerbating factor.”14

The BSE contagion destabilized economies and undermined the legitimacy of governments, but in the Schumpeterian sense of “creative destruction” it also provided a window for institutional change, particularly at the domestic level of governance. In the United Kingdom, the BSE crisis significantly undermined the trust of the people in government institutions (particularly MAFF), and shattered the public’s perceptions of the scientific community as both knowledgeable and trustworthy. Therefore, epistemic communities, at least in the case of animal husbandry and public health, were seen as either corrupt or incompetent. As a result, the BSE crisis set the stage for the dissolution of MAFF, which proved itself incompetent again in the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2001. At that point in time, the organization had proved itself so persistently incompetent, and beholden to various interests, that it was dissolved and its functions transferred to the nascent Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in 2001.

On March 27, 1996, the European Union imposed a complete ban on beef products from Britain, whereupon it conducted surveillance of British efforts in order to ensure that London was truly dealing with the problem in the most effective and timely manner. Despite the increased surveillance, from 1996 onward BSE began to spread from its base in Britain throughout the other countries of the European Union, resulting in a 30 percent collapse in the market price of beef in 1997 as the problem became evident throughout Europe. As the spread of BSE was documented throughout the European Union, exports from EU members to non-EU countries such as Russia were summarily banned by the latter. The decline in beef prices was particularly acute in Germany, where prices tumbled by circa 50 percent in 1997 as citizens reacted against the false claims of their government, which had gone to some lengths to assure the people that the food supply was untainted.15 The proliferation of BSE throughout Europe generated considerable acrimony between various EU countries throughout the latter half of the 1990s, both bilaterally and multi-laterally. Of particular note was the discord generated between Britain and France. French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany took an active part in the polemics, stating: “Our English friends exported this evil. . . . They should be morally condemned for this. They spread the animal feed through export which caused it to cross borders even while banning these feeds domestically.”16 In 1998, members of the British Parliament attacked other EU countries (France in particular) for maintaining the ban on UK exports, accusing them of putting narrow political and economic self-interest ahead of science. “I am satisfied,” said the British Agriculture Minister at the time, Jack Cunningham, “that there are no grounds for continuing with the totality of the ban. The decision should be taken on a scientific basis.”17 Negative perceptions of British actions damaged relations with other EU countries, such as the Netherlands. Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, Minister of Agriculture for the Netherlands, commented on the massive cull of livestock in Britain and the incineration of the bodies in vast pyres: “The mass slaughter of healthy animals led to public outrage and I take this very seriously.”18 Protests by domestic factions or stakeholders added additional complexity to the situation, acting in collective fashion to reinforce negative images of the “other,” whether that other was a foreign country, or indeed their own de-legitimized state.19

In late October of 1999, French farmers initiated an illegal blockade of French ports and set up a cordon to search incoming shipments of goods for British agricultural exports. Such actions were rationalized by the participants as justifiable retaliation for an earlier boycott of French goods by consumers in the United Kingdom.20 Fear and anxiety swept across France during the fall of 2000. BSE had begun to proliferate among French cattle stocks, resulting in the collapse of beef sales and prices. Domestically, this generated considerable acrimony within France between consumers and producers, and within the various factions of the French government. President Jacques Chirac appeared on French television to discuss the crisis on November 19, 2000. He demanded an immediate ban on all meat and bone meal (MBM) feedstocks, and called for rigorous and comprehensive testing of all domestic cattle. This generated a hail of criticism from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who perceived Chirac’s moves as an attempt to usurp his position. Jospin railed against Chirac for exacerbating the “collective psychosis” gripping the country in order to make political gains: “It is not the role of leaders to frighten public opinion.”21 By late 2000 it was apparent that the French government was falling victim to the same crisis of legitimacy that had haunted the British government for its failure to deal with BSE.

The European Union concluded in late 1998 that proper safeguards had finally been enacted by the United Kingdom, and subsequently the European Union recommended to its member states that the ban on British cattle and beef products be lifted as of August 1, 1999. However, France chose to ignore this EU ruling, and permitted UK beef to cross its territory but not to enter the French food supply. The European Commission then initiated legal action against France for failure to comply with its obligations as a member state.22 Within France the crisis also pitted domestic interest groups against one another. “The BSE crisis,” Patrick Messerlin noted, “has dealt a fatal blow to the longstanding love affair between French consumers and farmers. In December 2000, farmers blocking roads in northern France were accused of being ‘poisoners’ on French radio waves—an accusation reminiscent of the revolutionary 1780s.”23

According to Michel Setbon et al., the BSE crisis generated an enormous sociopolitical and economic crisis in France after the discovery of BSE contamination of endogenous French stocks.24 Its profound impact resulted from the combination of a novel pathogen (prions), which generated high levels of uncertainty (particularly regarding the extent of infection of the people), combined with anticipated high levels of lethality. As in Britain, the crisis generated enormous levels of affect (emotion) that ranged from to fear, to anxiety, to anger.25 These powerful affective currents in French society combined with the discovery of a BSE-positive cow in a French slaughterhouse in November 2000 to cause the price of beef in France to plunge by 20-30 percent.26 Echoing the British case, the crisis also served to undercut society’s perceptions of the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the state. Setbon et al. argue that “in spite of numerous official informative campaigns and preventive measures, suspicion (of the food supply) was durably established.”27 Indeed, they argue that society’s perceptions of the state in the aftermath of the crisis “seems to be structured by a permanent feeling of social distrust. . . . This is probably because people judge the magnitude of the human epidemic unchanged by (the state’s) decisions and consider that public authorities are still to be blamed.”28 Messerlin concurs that the BSE crisis also undercut perceptions of legitimacy of the French government:

. . . the BSE crisis again underlines the low accountability of French governments—and of the European Commission. . . . Since the late 1980s, all French agriculture Ministers have fought, delayed and limited all necessary measures for protecting human health. French governments have also failed to take necessary anti-BSE measures even several years after Britain did. France (banned MBMs) in July 1990, but only for bovines—a disastrous limitation because it opened the door to cross-contamination. . . .29

In the case Commission v. France (C-1/00), the European Court of Justice ultimately ruled against France’s unilateral ban on UK beef and cattle products, arguing that France was in violation of its obligations as a member of the European Union. Other European countries (including Russia, Spain, Poland, and Hungary) announced in November 2000 that they would place total or partial bans on French beef and cattle exports. Germany also saw political fallout and government instability as a result of the crisis: “One key minister was forced to resign, and the government moved quickly to establish a new federal food safety agency.”30

It becomes possible to think of BSE as an externality or a “public bad”31 originally generated within the United Kingdom and ultimately disseminated through the exporting of MBM feed and live cattle to the rest of the world. In this sense BSE may be seen as a global public bad akin to HIV and SARS, with specific geographic and customary origins, transmitted across the globe through complex vectors of transmission. Fox elaborates:

Infected animals from the UK were detected in Canada, Oman, and the Falkland Islands, in addition to six European countries. Exports of MBM from the UK . . . reach(ed) approximately 15,000 tons . . . in 1988. Most went to EU countries but some also went . . . to non-EU countries including Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. As a result of the ruminant feed ban in the UK, exports to the EU and other countries doubled between 1988 and 1989. When EU countries banned MBM from the UK or introduced their own feed bans in 1989, exports to non-EU countries increased. . . . It appears that until the mid 1990s, potentially infective MBM from the UK continued to be exported to countries that did not have ruminant feed bans.32

Messerlin has argued that the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) may have been partially to blame for the spread of the BSE agent throughout EU countries. In this sense, then, BSE is

a derivative of the CAP, which has induced French (and European) farmers to shift resources away from unprotected soja (protein-rich) crops to highly protected cereals, beef, and sheep. In order to get the amount of proteins needed for improving productivity in milk and meat production, European farmers have often fed their cattle with a by-product—the “meat-and-bone meals” (MBMs)—abundant because European beef production is highly subsidized by the CAP. French MBM producers are linked to slaughterhouses . . . enjoying regional monopolies granted by the French state.33

Ultimately, the BSE crisis is evidence of a significant regulatory failure for the European Union as well. Krapohl argues that the EU’s capacity to regulate during the crisis was effectively blocked by the particular economic and political interests of the member states.34 “Until 1996,” Krapohl notes elsewhere, “common regulations were prevented because British interests dominated the Scientific Veterinary Committee, the committee that advised the Commission on these matters, and played down the dangers of BSE for human health. . . . That failure was deemed to be corrected by the establishment of the . . . Scientific Steering Committee. However, the regulations proposed by this committee were blocked by the member states in the Standing Veterinary Committee. . . .”35

“The BSE crisis,” Messerlin concludes, “provides two lessons. It stresses the urgent need of deep reforms in the European Union. By banning the domestic use of MBMs while allowing their exports to the European Union, Britain has not fully integrated the co-sovereignty dimension implicit in the EU. Meanwhile, by bashing Britain without imposing adequate measures on their own producers in a timely fashion, the other EU member-states have not exerted their own sovereignty.”36

As per the British domestic experience, the BSE crisis damaged citizens’ perceptions of the regulatory efficacy of EU institutions, and undermined the perceived legitimacy of EU scientific bodies, who discounted the probability of the pathogen’s proliferation beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. Again, at the EU level, the crisis proved catalytic and opened a temporal window for the reformation of EU institutions. Echoing Schumpeter once more, the crisis did in fact create a brief window of transformation of the EU bureaucracy, in that it allowed for the formation of the European Food Safety Authority in 2002.37 Furthermore, as a direct result of the crisis the European Union established a Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs. However, there is no comprehensive European health policy to speak of.

The BSE crisis also temporarily damaged relations between the European Union, its member states, and other countries. One interesting example is that of Saudi Arabia, which banned beef and mutton products from the EU on January 7, 2001. The Saudi Commerce Ministry expressed its grave concern with EU practices, arguing that “cheating and collusion” had occurred within the bureaucracies in certain EU states to facilitate the export of tainted products from the United Kingdom to developing countries.38 Moreover, the persistent problems associated with BSE have complicated relations between the European Union and the United States on a number of matters, including trade in hormonefree beef. Specifically, the outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease, and subsequently foot-and-mouth disease in several EU countries, laid the groundwork to impede any resolution of the persistent meat hormone dispute between Brussels and Washington. “The EU,” Raymond Ahearn noted in 2005, “has recently indicated its intention to make the ban on hormone-treated meat permanent. . . . In discussions held June 11, 2001, a US industry proposal for expanded access to the EU market for hormone-free beef for a period of 12 years was rejected by the EU. The compensation talks have since languished.”39

Prions in North America

In 2001, a report by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis made the bold claim that “BSE is extremely unlikely to be established in the US,” echoing the assurances made to citizens by British scientists, and subsequently by the cognoscenti of the European Union.40 Unfortunately, such assessments of risk were again proved inaccurate. William Leiss argues that by focusing exclusively on the threat that Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) posed to human health, such studies erred by ignoring the profound economic risks associated with the discovery of just a few cases of prion-induced disease in North American cattle stocks.41 In May 2003, the discovery of a single case of BSE in Alberta resulted in an immediate embargo on Canadian cattle and beef exports, and lost markets in the lucrative markets of the United States, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea.42 With the revelation that BSE had made its way to North American cattle stocks, the US Department of Agriculture immediately banned all imports of Canadian beef, cattle products, and ruminants. As Canadian safeguards were subsequently enacted, the USDA announced the resumption of imports in October 2003.43 The discovery of the first American case (in December 2003, in the state of Washington) generated moderately destructive effects on the US industry as well.

In the wake of the revelation of BSE’s introduction to North America, it is important to contrast the various negative effects on Canada with those experienced by the United States. O’Neill notes that “within days of the USDA’s announcement on December 23, 2003, eighteen countries has closed their borders to US beef imports. In total, the United States lost access to seventy overseas markets. However, by way of contrast, only 10 percent of US beef and cattle are exported.”44 Because of the United States’ relatively limited dependence on export revenues, as compared to Canada, the economic fallout from the crisis was limited. After the discovery of this first case of BSE in the United States, the US federal government commissioned a study by an International Review Team to analyze the efficacy of the domestic response. While the IRT determined that the US response was generally adequate in a rudimentary sense, it recommended additional actions, including a comprehensive national BSE surveillance program. The USDA declined to adopt such policies, citing significant costs. However, the decision to circumscribe surveillance efforts is doubtless the result of those domestic stakeholder groups and other pro-business factions who have profound influence on USDA policy.

As the ban on Canadian cattle exports persisted, it proved highly destructive to the Canadian cattle industry, which had relied for some time on US facilities for the processing of cattle. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund and the United Stockgrowers of America obtained an injunction against imports of Canadian products, courtesy of a ruling by US District Court Justice Richard Cebull on April 26, 2004.45 In September 2004, the international polemics began in earnest. Canadian opposition leader Stephen Harper accused the United States of protectionism. On January 4, 2005, in response to the ruling by Justice Cebull, the USDA issued a formal rule to reopen the border to trade in Canadian beef and cattle products. Litigation continued until the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overruled the lower court’s original decision in July 2005.46 Canadian cattle shipments to the United States resumed on July 18, 2005.47 In February of that year, the USDA’s Inspector General had issued a conclusive report that was highly critical of the USDA bureaucracy, stating that the department’s actions regarding Canada were “arbitrary and undocumented, policy decisions were poorly communicated to the public (and within the bureaucracy), and controls over the regulatory process were inadequate.”48

As of January 2006, BSE had been reported in only five cattle that had been bred and raised in North America. However, as the year progressed, the illness appeared to expand. Six new cases were diagnosed in North America, five in Canada and one in the United States. Although authorities in Ottawa and in Washington suggest that most of these new cases were born before the 1997 feed ban came into effect, this has yet to be conclusively determined.49 Under pressure from the Western provinces, which were hurt by the economic loss resulting from U.S. embargo, the federal government in Ottawa was forced to intervene, providing more than $C1.4 billion in aid to offset the losses.50 Unfortunately for Canada, a new case of BSE was confirmed on February 7, 2007, leading to another round of strident criticism by US domestic producers and to demands that the border be closed and that a systematic (and effective) tracking system of cattle be implemented. It would appear that Ottawa is experiencing continuing difficulties in enforcing domestic compliance with its dictates to stem the expansion of BSE. The US criticism of Ottawa continues, largely spurred by the fact that US domestic interests seek to overturn Asian bans on US cattle exports, particularly that of South Korea. And the persistence of BSE in North America undermines Asian confidence in the safety of US beef.

While it is the fashion to blame Ottawa for the continuing perceptions of North American cattle and beef as tainted, the lack of surveillance in the United States impedes the clarification of the integrity of US stocks and thus only reinforces perceptions that the United States is hiding a greater problem. That in turn translates into continuing suspicions regarding the nature of US cattle stocks (and reinforces domestic fears about the food supply), and those suspicions undermine foreign confidence and lead to continuing impediments for the export of US beef exports to foreign markets such as Japan and South Korea. The inhibition of surveillance efforts by the US cattlemen’s association (and its institutional vassal, the USDA) seems paradoxical and irrational, particularly if US beef stocks are in fact safe. Common sense would dictate that, in the context of a clean domestic stock, the various factions that benefit from beef exports would go out of their way to demonstrate the purity of the stocks, and therefore rejuvenate US exports. Naturally, then, the Japanese and others remain wary of US beef exports.

Economic Impact

The BSE-induced loss of export markets for Canada generated significant economic damage, which ranged as high as C$500 million per month. Ottawa subsequently committed C$460 million in compensation to producers injured by the crisis.51 With greater relative levels of cattle and beef exports to foreign markets, Canada has suffered much more from the embargoes than the United States. O’Neill writes:

Cattle and calf prices dropped almost 50 percent between May and July 2003. . . . Market receipts for cattle and calves in the third quarter of 2003 tumbled to less than $500 m, down 73 percent from the $1.8bn recorded in the third quarter of 2002. From May to December the US was the direct beneficiary of Canada’s woes: its exports to the rest of the world increased by 17 percent, more than filling the gap left by the loss of Canada’s exports. . . . By the time the USDA eased its ban on Canadian beef imports, it was estimated that the loss of Canada’s export trade was costing $C11 million per day, and 5,000 jobs had been lost.52

In the United States the cattle industry accounts for circa 20 percent of annual revenues from agricultural production. According to USDA figures, estimated revenues derived from US beef and other cattle products were approximately $3 billion in 2003, and the four primary foreign consumers of US beef are, historically, Japan at 37 percent, South Korea at 24 percent, Mexico at 20 percent, and Canada at 10 percent, collectively accounting for 90 percent of annual US beef exports.53

After the discovery of BSE in the United States in 2003, most importers immediately banned the importation of US beef products—including Japan and Korea, which maintained restrictions on US beef exports as of April 2008. As of early 2008, Canada and Mexico have relaxed their bans, with Canada hoping to enjoy reciprocity from Washington. The tarnished image of US beef supplies has resulted in a significant decline in the United States’ share of the global beef market, from an estimated 18 percent in 2003 to a mere 3 percent as of late 2005.54 Specifically, total US beef exports in 2003 (before the BSE scare) were on the order of 2500 million pounds, which subsequently declined in dramatic fashion to a mere 425 million pounds in 2004, a decline of 83 percent. US exports have since rebounded to a modest 1.431 billion pounds in 2007.55

Similarly, the abrupt decline in demand for US beef products in 2003 resulted in a dramatic yet relatively short-lived decline in the price of beef, as the average price for slaughter-ready cattle plummeted to about $60.00 in 2003 and much of 2004. Despite the loss of certain foreign markets the price of beef has steadily increased over time to approximately $97.80 as of March 15, 2007.56

One 2005 study concluded that BSE-induced losses to the US beef industry from lost exports in 2004 alone ranged from $3.2 billion to $4.7 billion.57 And according to computations by the US National Cattleman’s Association, losses in 2005 amounted to circa $4.7 billion.58 (See figure 5.1.)

The United States and Canada have adopted similar containment regimes, which include the banning of MBM feeds, limited herd surveillance through randomized testing, and bans of imports from countries known to harbor BSE. But in early 2007 the USDA announced that it was significantly reducing its domestic BSE surveillance program by more than 90 percent and closing several labs around the country. While US cattle producers push their state legislatures to tag and track cattle imported from Canada, they oppose the introduction of a similar system for American cattle.59 The USDA’s opposition to such a system is likely a function of its extensive penetration by domestic stakeholders, which severely limits its autonomy.

Figure 5.1
Historic cattle prices, annual average, US$, 1977-2007 (CMEX data).

In the United States, continuing tensions between the federal government and certain domestic stakeholders who have sought to benefit from the ban have exacerbated relations between Ottawa and Washington over the time period involved. O’Neill notes that the conduct of both governments has been less than rational: “. . . it is hard to imagine a worse way for the officials of two leading, highly integrated economies to handle this sort of crisis.”60 Of course, the problems between Ottawa and Washington are not nearly as simple as might be assumed, as the game involves a number of players, including Tokyo and Seoul. Specifically, the lack of agreement among Japan, South Korea, and the United States directly results in the persistence of the ban on Canadian stocks, as the continuing occurrences of BSE in North America affect Asian perceptions of the safety of American beef and cattle stocks. This emanates from the accurate perception by Asian export markets that the Canadian and US cattle and beef industries are in fact linked into one macro-level entity.

The BSE crisis has proved somewhat detrimental to US-Japanese cooperation in recent years, notably in the domain of trade. This is odd given that BSE was actually discovered in Japanese cattle stocks on September 10, 2001, predating its emergence in North America. The emergence of BSE in Japan is most likely linked to the importation of tainted cattle or MBM feed from Britain in the mid to late 1990s. Tokyo’s announcement of infected domestic stocks sent prices of Japanese cattle into a tailspin, with retail prices declining to circa 40-50 percent below the levels seen in 2000. The crisis also reduced Japanese demand for imported beef, with US exports to Japan declining by 42 percent in the first two quarters of 2002, well before the discovery of BSE in US stocks.61

The persistent Japanese (and South Korean) wariness of US stocks has complicated attempts to resolve the long-standing dispute between Washington and Ottawa. The Japanese have insisted that the United States institute a cattle and beef product tracing program that identifies each animal’s place of origin. Adding to the complexities of the situation, Tokyo also has explicitly included “the provision that the United States not lift its ban on Canadian imports” before Japan agrees to normalize trade relations with the United States on this matter.62 In October 2004, the United States and Japan developed a framework for re-opening trade in beef between the two countries. Trade in beef products briefly resumed in December 2005 until Tokyo discovered vertebrae in US exports, whereupon the ban on US beef products was reinstated. In July 2006, Japan opened its market once again to US beef exports. and trade has resumed. Japanese skepticism of the safety of US exports, and their persistent refusal to re-open their market to US products, has resulted in retaliatory proposals in the US Congress from 2003 to 2006, particularly S.1922/H.R.4179, which proposed $3.14 billion in retaliatory tariffs against Tokyo unless it dropped its ban.

The BSE crisis has certainly damaged the Japanese people’s perceptions of the safety and desirability of beef, and of North American beef in particular. According to Becker, perceptions of North American food safety are so poor that “many Japanese consumers (and some officials there) reportedly remain opposed to resuming US imports regardless of whether the government clears the way for them. Meanwhile, these consumers have been substituting other proteins (i.e. pork) and other beef sources (i.e. Australia and New Zealand) for US beef, which once accounted for 25-30 percent of Japanese beef consumption.”63 The negative implications of the BSE pandemic are certainly not lost on senior US government officials. Ostfield has noted that high levels of uncertainty regarding prions induced significant levels of fear, which then subsequently generated significant economic damage to stakeholders in the United States:

The psychological effects on consumer behavior as a result of fear and anxiety over the possibility of a contaminated food product (loss in consumer confidence) can also have a ripple effect on other aspects of the economy. This problem is not exclusive to the US. Given Europe’s experience with natural outbreaks of [BSE]. . . . European officials are acutely aware of the potential impact . . . shorter term economic cost, permanent market loss, and potential political fallout. . . . While the human death toll from CJD in the UK was relatively low (158), the linkage between BSE and human health led to international bans of British beef imports, depressed markets for British beef, crippled the UK’s cattle industry, and destroyed consumer confidence in the UK’s ability to handle a health and agriculture threat.64

Trade between the United States and South Korea has also seen increased tensions over the BSE affair. Seoul recently vowed to maintain its quarantine of US beef after recent imports had been found to contain minute bone chips. There is some evidence that the United States is trying to link Korean permission for imports containing small bone chips to the passage of a Free Trade Agreement between the two parties. As of early 2007 such attempts to mollify the Korean public and improve perceptions of the safety of US beef had been relatively unsuccessful. In February 2007, Korean farmers launched protests to block the admission of such US beef products into the Korean food supply. However, as of April 2008 US beef exports were penetrating the Korean market.65

On Risk, Perception, Emotion, and Cognition

Setbon et al. confirm that risk perception is best described by a model that incorporates “the importance of feelings and the impossibility or reducing perceived risk to its cognitive dimension.”66 Such a “hotcognitive” model posits that psychological processes of cognition are in fact subject to various constraints, such as affect or emotion, that may impede rationality. The political psychologist David Redlawsk concurs, and posits that “affective biases may easily lead to lower quality decision making, leading to direct challenges to the notion of (humans) as rational Bayesian updaters.”67 Echoing such concerns regarding the irrationality of responses by affected countries, the Organization for Animal Health has argued that policy makers tend to overreact and impose draconian trade embargoes without conducting a sober and rational science-based risk analysis of the threat posed by BSE.

Theoretical Ramifications

The empirical destruction of human life from Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease has in fact proved to be rather minimal, certainly as compared to banes such as the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. One might note that the destruction wrought by the epizootic BSE has proven to be empirically quite devastating to herds of cattle, originally in the United Kingdom, and ultimately throughout the European Union. This ultimately serves to reinforce psychological analysis of the BSE pandemic. In this case, extreme levels of uncertainty regarding modes of transmission, the likelihood of becoming infected, and the slow and horrid death associated with VCJD all combined to generate exceptional levels of fear in the general population. Such high levels of affect only served to exacerbate the economic damage done by the spread of the disease, as panic served to destabilize markets. Ergo, the affective psychological component (fear, anxiety) associated with this form of contagion is of exceptional significance. This reinforces political psychology arguments which hold that perception, cognition, and affect may generate suboptimal outcomes, which in this case resulted in serious deviations from rationality.

The persistent overreaction of societies, and lack of effective reaction by sovereign states may not only result from a combination of affective bias coupled with the predominance of the precautionary principle; it may also be attributable to the fact that the “scientific experts” have been proved wrong time and again, in Britain, throughout the European Union, in Japan, and in North America. The political scientist Peter Haas espoused the notion that “epistemic communities” functioned as effective agents of positive change, with the scientist functioning as political agent.68 In fact, “epistemic communities” have been shown to be persistently in error throughout the attenuated BSE crisis. Moreover, scientists have also been perceived as the vassals of corporate interests and government bureaucracies, and dismissive of the public interest writ large. Collectively, then, public perceptions of the legitimacy of epistemic communities have declined. Thus, another long-term repercussion of the BSE scare, particularly in Europe, is the lingering mistrust of “expert opinion” in general, and of genetically modified foods in particular. “Expert assurances,” Robert Paarlberg argues, “are discounted by European consumers, distrustful since the 1996 ‘mad cow disease’ scare. That crisis undermined consumer trust in expert opinion after UK public health officials gave consumers what proved to be a false assurance that there was no danger in eating beef from diseased animals. Although mad cow disease had nothing to do with the genetic modification of food, it generated new anxieties about food safety”69 as GM products were being introduced to the EU market. Thus, the BSE epizootic is associated with negative effects on public perceptions of the legitimacy of epistemic communities, as the scientific community became perceived as either incompetent, or as corrupt and beholden to the private sector. This decline in legitimacy is unusual given the historical successes of epistemic communities in promoting the protection and remediation of complex ecological systems,70 or in the promotion of controls to inhibit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.71 Therefore, the case of the BSE epizootic provides a powerful exception to the rule of epistemic communities functioning as benign and effective agents of positive change in the realm of the political. Moreover, this case provides yet another sober look at the limited capacity of epistemic communities to accurately assess risk when faced with an emergent pathogen, and then to collaborate effectively with state institutions to mitigate that threat. Furthermore, the case of BSE raises the possibility of rivalrous epistemic communities, as espoused by the political scientist Jeremy Youde.72 In this case, those scientists in the employ of the agri-business factions and cattlemen’s lobby in the United States, faced off against scientists in the USDA, who in turn were pitted against their counterparts in Ottawa, casting doubt on the Haasian notion of the unified and autonomous epistemic community acting free of bias. Therefore, I argue that it is in fact expedient to take Youde’s formulation a step further, and to postulate the fragmentation of epistemic communities, and/or the existence of multiple rivalrous epistemic communities, each serving their various embedded interests and reflecting those biases, echoing the problems witnessed during our examinations of the response to SARS and to HIV/AIDS.

The BSE crisis also served to undermine the perceived legitimacy of those institutions of governance, both at the domestic and inter-state level, that were involved in the diagnosis and control of the pathogen. Public confidence in the integrity of the institutions involved has declined significantly, particularly in Europe, as a result of the BSE affair. On an institutional level, this case also provides additional support for the concept of contagion as a catalytic agent that provides an opportunity for Schumpeterian notions of “creative destruction,” wherein ineffective institutions (such as the MAFF in the United Kingdom) were dismantled and replaced by increasingly effective institutions. In this way, disease is not so much viewed as apocalyptic, but rather as transformative, providing a window of opportunity for important institutional reformation, both at the domestic and to a lesser extent at the supra-national level. Within the North American context the emergence of BSE generated considerable domestic and foreign concern over the safety of the US and Canadian food supplies, and the protection of public health. Both Canadian and US beef markets have suffered from a loss of confidence in their integrity, and a loss of confidence in the institutions designed to protect that integrity. However, the relatively minor nature of the epizootic (and in the incidence of human disease) in North America has not led to any major institutional reformation in the United States, while it provided impetus to affect a degree of institutional change in the Canadian case, namely the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2004.

In addition, the BSE crisis has illuminated the shortcomings of Marxist explanations of disease prevalence, which hold that poverty, and the global maldistribution of wealth explain all patterns of disease incidence and pathogenic emergence. As documented above, the wealthy state of Britain (a member of the G-8 no less) served as the global epicenter of the emerging BSE crisis, with the contagion ultimately spreading to more than 23 countries. This is crucial, in that a new zoonosis originated not in the developing countries, but rather in a wealthy and technically sophisticated member of the European Union. Moreover, the contagion spread from the United Kingdom to the other wealthy and technologically sophisticated countries of the European Union, and subsequently to Canada, the United States, and Japan. Thus, emergent infections are not in fact solely a function of the global distribution of wealth, as reductionists in the Marxist school would have us believe, but rather that pathogens evolve in complex fashion to fill ecological niches within all societies. The emergence of other pathogens within the context of wealthy and developed societies helps to illustrate this concept, ranging from Legionella in air conditioning systems to antibiotic resistant diseases such as MRSA and VRE, which have colonized the North American hospital systems. As was noted above, the SARS epidemic is yet another powerful example of a modern global epidemic that resulted from zoonosis and thrived in the nosocomial ecologies of modern industrial societies.

On balance, international cooperation has proved to be rather problematic in the face of the BSE pandemic. Relations between sovereign states have been marred by polemics, a series of painful trade embargoes, and some limited disruption of a supra-national organization such as the European Union, and inter-state accords such as NAFTA. Ultimately, the BSEinduced discord that persists between many countries offsets the nascent cooperation that has begun to occur in the European Union. On a theoretical level, this case casts considerable doubt on liberal institutional models of international relations, which predict cooperation between sovereign states, and reinforces elements of republican Realist paradigm which stresses the protection of perceived self-interest, and territorial sovereignty, and predicts competitive behavior between states. O’Neill concurs: “. . . when public health is threatened by “foreign” diseases, countries almost always act first by protecting their borders.”73 The constructive facet of the paradigm also predicts that states do not adhere to the Rational Actor Model, which “views decision making as a utility—or value—maximizing process.”74 The Pareto-suboptimal decision making that has characterized the BSE issue suggests that both conventional Realist and Liberal theory is in need of some refinement, particularly in their inabilities to explain such irrational mistakes in foreign policy decision making.75 While the European Union has finally obtained some form of cohesion on the issue, the initially obstructionist responses by Britain, France, and other sovereign states within the union gives additional credibility to the republican Realist model. Furthermore, the continuing lack of effective cooperation between Ottawa and Washington, and the inability of the NAFTA states to gain cooperation from their Asian partners, suggests that Paretosuboptimal irrationality, coupled with unenlightened self-interest, and tendencies toward protectionism are the norm in this case. Collectively such behavior provides preliminary evidence that undermines the validity of the neo-liberal model which privileges cooperation and rationality. Moreover, neo-liberal theorists hold that international institutions would be highly effective in facilitating cooperation between sovereign states, and yet the BSE case indicates that the efficacy of international organizations is weak at best. In the case of the European Union it experienced many years of pronounced discord between its member states, and had to use coercion (through threat of legal sanctions) to get its members to comply with EU statutes. NAFTA has been largely ineffective as a means of resolving the ongoing disputes between the United States and Canada, and international organizations (such as the WTO and the G-8) have shown themselves to be equally ineffective in resolving the disputes between the North American and Asian states. Collectively, the evidence to date suggests that orthodox liberal theory has a rather difficult time in explaining the international acrimony generated by the BSE affair.

Globalization and recent advances in communications technologies have amplified the effects of this epizootic. BSE-induced uncertainty, fear, and anxiety have been transmitted via the mass media across the globe, resulting in the intensification of the affective response, and undermining the ability to assess risk which in turn leads to overreaction. Perversely then, the processes of globalization, such as increased trade, global markets in commodities, the increased flows of information via global media have all contributed to the emergence of this global “public bad” or externality. In a sense, then, the BSE crisis exhibits emergent properties as well, as changes in animal husbandry, leading to prion emergence, combined with such aforementioned processes of globalization to generate the profound levels of fear and uncertainty that ultimately inflicted significant economic damage on affected countries, and generated protracted political discord between sovereign states.

Moreover, the symbolic nature of the BSE crisis reinforces republican theory. The emergence of BSE was seen as resulting from human violations of the laws of nature, of modern “progress” gone horribly awry as cows were converted into carnivores to enrich certain economic factions of society. This symbolism reinforces perceptions of BSE as a plague-like visitation on humanity, as a form of almost divine retribution, and as punishment for the violation of natural law. Such notions of punishment for violations of the natural order has led to the search for “the other” as scapegoat. Whether the other is the government, cattle producers, or foreign peoples, the perception of the other as being culpable (and therefore the progenitor of the plague) is widespread, and undermines the capacity for cooperation between affected parties.

The processes of scapegoating, of constructing the other as the guilty party, so prevalent over the broad span of history, appears to persist in this case as well. Fisher comments:

A striking characteristic of the historical reaction to plagues has been the pervasive belief that they are a form of retribution exacted for the sins or failings of society and that these sins or failings can be expiated through the punishment of offenders. . . . As the state took on the responsibility for the execution of policies designed to contain or eradicate plagues, it and its agencies became a logical target in the case of perceived failure.76

In sum, the BSE case illustrates the utility of combining Realist perspectives that emphasize self-interest and competitive anarchy, with those elements of Constructivism that focus on perception and cognition, particularly within an affect-laden hot-cognition model wherein affect may generate significant deviations from rationality. The republican Realist model incorporates elements of both Realism and political psychology, given that they are both descendants of republican theory. The case also illustrates the problems latent in the literature on epistemic communities, as rivalrous factions of epistemic communities occur in this case, and epistemic communities (with their continued inability to assess the risks) are often no longer perceived as competent by the people. Moreover the difficulties in risk assessment and containment, so evident in the European and North American cases, have also served to undermine the perceptions of the legitimacy of state institutions, particularly in the European context.

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