Bovine spongiform encephalitis, colloquially known as ‘mad cow disease’, came to light in Britain in the mid-1980s and was subsequently identified in some other European countries. Exactly how it started is a much debated question, but the former practice (discontinued in Britain in 1988) of recycling dead sheep and cattle meat as animal feed (and changes in the 1970s in the regulations governing this practice) is widely viewed as a prime factor.
Efforts to eradicate BSE had a particularly severe effect on cattle farming (millions of animals destroyed) and the meat trade in Britain. The full consequences of ‘new variant CJD’, the form it has taken when transmitted, with fatal results, to humans, are yet to be known. The disease has had widespread effects. International trade in beef has been reduced. The supervision and control of animal husbandry, to ensure traceability of animals entering the food chain and to secure safe slaughter, has much increased. At some stages, consumption of beef has lessened, usually only to recover. Various parts of the animal have been removed from human consumption, particularly the brain and spinal cord. This has changed our relationship with traditional modes of cookery, where all the animal was consumed with relish, emphasizing our preference for prime cuts. This is the more true because of new limits on the age of animals slaughtered for human consumption.