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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Bovine Nightmare

Britain's "mad-cow" debacle
holds lessons in crisis management

IT IS HARD TO say precisely when international concern over "mad-cow" disease first took on the tinges of alarm. Certainly, some governments responded quickly to domestic sentiment. Last month, Iran banned beef imports from Ireland, which has been actively fighting bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The disease attacks a cow's brain, infects and destroys healthy cells, and ultimately kills the animal. Ironically, Ireland was among the countries that took the precaution in the late 1980s of forbidding sheep and cow offal to be mixed with cattle feed. It even ordered the slaughter of entire herds in which a single animal was found to have contracted BSE. But Iran, one of several West Asian nations to ban Irish beef, said it was worried that infected British animals may have been smuggled into Ireland.

The lesson: when it comes to food safety, few measures will be deemed too extreme by any government. Unfortunately, that fact seems lost on authorities in Britain, where the current mad-cow crisis is rooted. They continue to pursue an agenda that diminishes, rather than fosters, public confidence. For a decade, Britain's government assured consumers that there was no chance they could contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the human equivalent of BSE, from eating diseased cows. But after examining ten cases of CJD in young people -- eight of whom have died -- a British hospital researcher concluded recently that there may indeed be a link.

The announcement sent shock waves around the world. In Asia, Singapore and the Philippines banned beef and beef products from Britain. Japan and Thailand tightened existing restrictions. Officials in Hong Kong at first insisted that British beef imports were safe. But they, too, were soon obliged to heed a groundswell of public concern and halted the shipments. The number of countries slapping prohibitions reached 28 worldwide before the European Commission rendered the question moot last week by barring all exports of British beef, despite London's objections. The ban would last six weeks, during which the EC would assess relevant scientific data as well as Britain's own moves to ensure the safety of its beef.

Instead of dithering as public confidence crumbled, British officials could have drawn some useful lessons from corporate crisis management. One textbook example would be the recent Vitasoy affair in Hong Kong, in which customers complained about sourness in the company's renowned soy milk. Vitasoy was, if anything, criticized for acting too forcefully -- closing production lines and recalling millions of cartons of its drinks on the basis of fewer than ten complaints. But consumer confidence was quickly restored. The price was high: $8.5 million straight off the bottom line. But the company's all-important credibility was salvaged. Other prominent cases involved the U.S. drugmaker Tylenol, whose bottles were tampered with in the early 1980s, and France's Perrier, which discovered benzene in its mineral water a few years later. Both companies took costly, dramatic action to restore consumer confidence. In both cases, it worked.

The EC may not get definitive answers from its study of British BSE. Scientifically, much remains unclear. Can people contract the fatal CJD from eating tainted beef? Until recently, many researchers thought the genetic makeup of humans and cows was too different for that to be possible. But recent evidence suggests -- without proving conclusively -- that such a transmission may have occurred in cases where people ingested cow parts containing nerve cells. And the history of BSE implies that the disease can jump genetic hurdles. Cows are believed to have developed the infection from eating offal of diseased sheep mixed in with feed.

The ambiguity of the scientific evidence probably contributed to the British government's schizophrenic response. Mr. Jacques Delors, former EC president, says Britain's "vacillation" had fueled the public panic: "One minister would say it wasn't so bad, and another hint that it was dramatic." Another factor could have been domestic politics, with a weak prime minister, Mr. John Major, reluctant to take drastic action that might rebound against him in a general election due before May 1997. Britain's wavering, plus the extent to which it apparently underestimated the risks to humans from its mad-cow problems (British beef accounts for 99% of the world's BSE cases), has undermined public faith in its ability to formulate a solution.

Even so, London continues to press the European Commission to lift the export ban immediately. The British have presented a plan to the EC pledging to destroy more than 4.5 million cattle over the next six years. But a commission spokesman insisted that "maintaining the embargo is absolutely necessary to reassure public opinion." The EC seems to recognize more clearly than the British government what is at stake: the market for beef is collapsing throughout Europe. In France, authorities report that sales are down 50%. Even in Hong Kong, which gets the bulk of its beef from China, they have reportedly fallen 30% to 40%.

A mass slaughter of British cattle will entail huge costs. The government would have to pay ranchers and dairy farmers between $4 billion and $6 billion in compensation for the animals targeted under the current plan. With all the special interests and political considerations at stake, consumers are rightly concerned whether the authorities will do the right thing and protect their interests.

That's why a multinational commission, free of commercial concerns and vested interests, should be established to deal with questions of food and drug safety worldwide. A model already exists in the form of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an arm of the United Nations. That body is charged with regulating the safe use and distribution of nuclear material. The establishment of a similar organization empowered to decide on food safety would go far to reassure consumers the world over. Of course, even the best-qualified panel of international scientists may not be able to rule definitively on a given issue. But that's not the point. Consumers will know that its collective verdict will be the best and most objective assessment available to them. Their individual buying decisions will then send the clearest possible message to governments as well as food producers about what are and aren't acceptable risks.

The mad-cow debacle raises another question. Cattle are herbivores; their digestive systems are designed to cope with plants, not animals. When Britain experienced its first outbreak of BSE nearly a decade ago, it and many countries barred the use of cow and sheep offal in cattle feed. But there are fears that the practice persists. It won't be the first time nature may have sent a message to humans about tampering with its designs. The AIDS scourge, some researchers now believe, may have been passed from monkeys to people through an African tribe that sought to honor the simian by eating its brains.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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