Food Safety: History lesson

March 22, 2003
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Complacent about current food regulations? Then you're ignoring the lesson of vigilance

"It couldn't happen here."

The recent discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or Mad Cow Disease) in a Japanese Holstein cow, the first such finding in Asia, is a sobering reminder of some food safety basics: There is always risk, and it needs to be managed through constant vigilance. Regulations and guidelines are only as good as their verification.

In the absence of something like BSE or foot-and-mouth disease, agriculture officials are often the first to proclaim the superiority of their national systems - until, that is, the ailment appears on their soil. The use of one country's animal disease failures to bolster another's sense of regulatory pride ignores the lesson of vigilance, and should be tempered by an understanding that the worst can happen to any country.

The European country of Belgium can look to its own heritage for the proper blend of pride and humility. More than a century ago, in the midst of the 1865-67 cattle plague that rocked Europe, Belgium was spared the scourges of the disease, unlike many of its neighbours. The Belgians were quick to praise their own success in keeping the plague under control. In fact, the Belgian Interior Minister, Mr. Van Denpeereboom, proudly noted that Belgium lost only 2,300 head of cattle to the plague, while England and Holland lost more than 230,000 head.

While Mr. Van Denpeereboom had reason to be proud, he also recognized the inmportance of remaining vigilant. Then, as today, economic relations spun a complex web of buying and selling animals and meat. Free trade flourished in the 1860s, and it was popular in Western Europe to repeal customs duties on food imports. In 1860, the countries of Great Britain signed a "most-favoured nation" commercial treaty, agreeing to charge each other no more than the lowest import duties granted to their other trading partners. Two years later, in 1862, Germany signed a similar trade agreement with France, and Belgium joined the club by repealing its import duties on grain. Needless to say, commercial diplomacy of this kind prompted increased cross-border trading in agricultural products, including cattle and meat.

But by 1865, the ravages of the cattle plague were all too apparent and demanded regulatory controls. Recognizing Belgium's susceptibility to the cattle plague, a Brussels-based diplomat noted in September of that year that "the cattle plague, which is causing such great ravages in England, has appeared in this country [Belgium], having spread from Holland, where it was brought by some Dutch cattle sent to London for sale, and reimported."

Belgium was thus motivated to quickly prohibit "the entry and transit of cattle, (in certain parts sheep and swine,) hides, fresh meat, and offal, hay, straw, and manure, at the maritime frontiers and the land frontiers."

These measures, along with restrictions on cattle markets and fairs, resulted in Belgium's success in keeping the cattle plague under control. However, the Belgian Interior Minister did not use England's and Holland's failures to boost Belgian pride. Rather, Mr. Van Denpeereboom issued the following warning, in June of 1866: "It is not impossible that some isolated cases [of cattle plague] may still appear in [in our country]. Those fears are only too much justified by the experience of the past; they must make us persistent in the measures of precaution and vigilance which have enabled us to escape until now.''

Mr. Van Denpeereboom was wise. He understood that regulations, like actors, are only as good as their last performance. All regulators would do well to remember this, especially those tempted to make too favorable a comparison between their own animal health regulations and those of Britain.

And as countries grapple with BSE, they would do well to ensure that regulations are enforced on the farm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has done just that, and made the results public. Other countries would be wise to follow suit.

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