Expensive German Caution: 'Wasteful' Tests for Mad Cow Disease Questioned

By Günther Stockinger

Ten years after the epidemic threatened Europe, German beef cattle are still being tested for BSE, to the tune of millions of euros a year. Some experts call the practice a waste. The disease never took hold on German farms, and regional politicians believe there are more effective ways to keep livestock safe.

Photo Gallery: The Search for Mad Cows Photos
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The smell of beef liver with onion rings and apples put Axel Vogel in a good mood. The scene was the Summter Storch Restaurant in Mühlenbeck, a town in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. Vogel, the Green Party floor leader in the Brandenburg state parliament, was meeting with his counterparts in the opposition, Gregor Beyer (a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, or FDP, eating T-bone steak) and Dieter Dombrowski (a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, eating a beef roulade), to explore common ground: their faith in German beef.

It's been 10 years since bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad-cow disease, threatened to spread from Great Britain to continental Europe. At the time Vogel's fellow party member Renate Künast, the freshly minted consumer affairs minister for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party coalition government, had declared war on the disease. But now the three opposition politicians in Brandenburg are ready to ask: How much longer should this battle continue?

In particular, they question the value of expensive large-scale testing of beef cattle. After a decade of testing samples from the brains of 21 million cattle in Germany for BSE, scientists have concluded that mad-cow disease never took hold here.

'Many Farmers Still Haven't Recovered'

All of 12 animals sick with BSE were discovered at German slaughterhouses with the help of rapid tests. The last case was diagnosed five years ago. In 394 other cases, test results were positive but the animals never exhibited any disease symptoms.

By comparison, about 190,000 cattle sick with BSE entered the food chain in Great Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while another estimated 900,000 animals were still healthy but had already been infected.

Since news of the disease reached Germany, some 15,355 cattle have been killed in so-called stock and cohort culling. At first, whenever a suspected case of BSE occurred on a farm, the entire herd would be culled. Later the practice was limited to animals born in the same year as the potentially infected animal. "Many farmers still haven't recovered," says Reinhard Jung, the managing director of the Brandenburg Farmers Association.

It turns out that much of the concern and costs were unnecessary. Not even one in 1,000 of the culled animals tested positive for BSE.

In Germany, unlike Great Britain and France, fears that mad-cow disease would jump to humans never materialized. Not a single officially recognized case of the new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakod disease, which resembles BSE and destroys the brains of victims, has been recorded to date. "Hindsight is always 20-20," says Michael Beekers, who studies prion diseases at Berlin's Robert Koch Institute.

€150 Million a Year

Their caution has cost the Germans dearly. Experts estimate the total cost of the testing campaign in slaughterhouses at about €1 billion ($1.39 billion). The hidden costs of controlling a potential epidemic were likely much higher.

Sucharit Bhakdi, a medical microbiology specialist at the University of Mainz, calls it a "scandal." According to Bhakdi, "some €150 million a year was initially spent in Germany for the pointless testing of healthy cattle; this is more than twice the budget that all university hospitals have at their disposal for diagnosing infections in their patients."

"A danger to the consumer hasn't existed for many years now," admits Martin Groschup, an expert in animal epidemics at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute on Riems, an island in the Baltic Sea near Greifswald in northeastern Germany. In Switzerland, where herds were once much more heavily afflicted with BSE, routine testing has long been discontinued. However, the agriculture ministry in Berlin continues to support the tests, "for reasons of preventive consumer protection."

Help could now be on the way from Brussels. Under a proposal by the European Commission, the minimum age for mandatory tests among herds could be raised from 48 to 72 months as of the middle of this year. This would significantly reduce the number of required tests in the future, because the overwhelming majority of beef cattle are younger. Instead of imposing a clear political decision, the new rule would quietly remove animals from the testing cycle.

The two other pillars of BSE epidemic control are not subject to negotiation, however. None of the experts wants to change the ban on the cannibalistic practice of feeding ruminants products derived from cattle, or the removal of high-risk materials like brain, spinal marrow and intestinal material from cattle feed.

These measures are not only logical; they're also cheaper than routine rapid tests, particularly as the highly fatty nerve tissue of animals, says Groschup, "is a fantastic fuel for incinerator plants."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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