What’s Wrong With British Cattle?

Why do they get so many diseases?

What’s with all the disease outbreaks?

It’s been a rough start to the fall for British farmers, with reports of sporadic cases of BSE (mad cow disease) and more cases of foot-and-mouth disease. And then on Friday, British public health officials officially pronounced an outbreak of bluetongue disease among the nation’s cattle. So what makes British cattle so sickly?

Heathrow Airport. Agriculture experts say the outbreaks in the United Kingdom are the result of bad luck more than anything else. But the country does have the distinction of being Europe’s primary landing spot for global travel, and that could put livestock at risk. Travelers from every continent pass through London Heathrow Airport (the busiest airport in the world for international traffic), and with them comes food waste from airplanes. Pathology researchers consider airline food waste, which is sometimes processed into food for livestock, the greatest danger to animal health in the world. Airline garbage that’s contaminated with foreign diseases can end up in livestock troughs, or it goes to landfills where it might infect wild animals—who could then spread illness to domesticated livestock.

It’s also possible that British cattle are simply the victims of bad publicity. Most European countries, as well as nations in Africa, Asia, and North America, have had confirmed cases of the three major livestock diseases—mad cow, foot and mouth, and bluetongue. But the United Kingdom happens to have one of the best systems in the world for reporting these outbreaks. Since the country was struck with a devastating foot-and-mouth epidemic in 1968, British health officials have developed a surveillance network with a very high degree of transparency. * This ensures that individual cases of diseases are immediately reported to the government, and appropriate action is taken. So the British cattle may not be any more sickly than those in other parts of the world; they might just be getting watched a bit more closely.

British cattle have had their reputation tarnished by chronic cases of mad cow disease. The origins of that infection remain murky, but it has been strongly linked to changes in the rendering process  for food, usually meat particles, fed to livestock. * Meat that had not been “deactivated,” or made innocuous, infected animals with a malicious, brain-degenerating protein. But shifts in rendering methods were occurring throughout Europe, and not just in the United Kingdom. British farmers may have been the unlucky ones who got struck first.

The United Kingdom has also suffered from the illegal importation of infected livestock. The 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which delayed British elections and caused millions of animals to be slaughtered, was of Asian origin: Untested swine were sneaked into the country and processed into food for U.K. livestock. This isn’t just a British problem, however; allcountries have similar issues with the informal, black-market trade in livestock. And this year’s foot-and-mouth outbreak was a complete fluke—a U.K. laboratory inadvertently released the virus.

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Explainer thanks Juan Lubroth *  of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Greg Stevenson of Purdue University.

Correction, Oct. 1, 2007:This article originally mentioned a late-1960s outbreak of mad cow disease. The outbreak was actually foot-and-mouth disease; mad cow was
not discovered until the late-1980s. (
Return to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Oct. 4, 2007:This article originally misspelled Juan Lubroth’s name.