Two scientists whose research suggests that cases of new form CJD may not, after all, be linked with contaminated beef have this week been awarded £250,000 by the Ministry of Agriculture to continue their study. Alan Ebringer and Professor John Pirt have suggested that a type of bacteria, which resides in water, sewage and soil may actually be the cause of specific fatal brain diseases such as BSE and CJD. This acinetobacter can not be passed through the consumption of beef. Their preliminary research indicates that genetically susceptible humans and animals actually become the victims of their own immune systems. These illnesses arise when the antibodies that are produced to combat the presence of the bacteria attack the host's healthy tissue.
"If our theory is right, and we are confident it is, it will remove fears about the safety of beef and there will be no need for restrictions on British beef exports. Acinetobacter is commonplace in muddy water and animal faeces. This may explain cases of CJD among farmers. It could also explain instances of CJD in vegetarians."
The scientific establishment has long contended that a rogue prion protein causes BSE and it is on this basis that all subsequent legislation and controls have been implemented. Since 1986 the BSE scare has cost the taxpayer £3.5 billion in compensation payments. Could it be that flawed science was responsible for the costliest peacetime crisis this century?
While the sum awarded for this research is minimal in these terms it represents a significant policy U-turn by the M of A. Its initial findings have not only warranted further investigation but promise radically to re-evaluate the way in which we should perceive and appraise our concepts of risk. In a society that has become increasingly safe we appear to be obsessed with minimising risks even further. Arguably, it is this obsession that may fuel our desire to seize upon science to define our fears for us. Had the prion theory been correct, beef on the bone would might claimed one life in the next ten years. If it now transpires that the science on which the ban was based was flawed, even that tiny risk will turn out to have been unfounded. It is still too early to accept uncritically, in the way that some newspapers have already done, Ebringer and Pirt's new theory. But if they are proved to be right, the lesson to be learned from the BSE scare will be salutory. It might even deter the health professionals and the media from continuing to generate fears about food products which are clearly safe by unjustified comparisons with 'Mad Cow Disease' – the scare that never should have been.