BRITAIN'S 11 MILLION COWS SPENT last weekend as usual, grazing in bovine indifference to mankind, unaware of the political storm that broke over their innocent, if possibly diseased, heads last week. It began when the health secretary told a stunned Parliament that consumption of infected beef may be linked to an outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare, gruesome and invariably fatal brain disorder. Countries all over Europe banned English beef (none has been imported into the United States since 1989), London steakhouses were doing a brisk business in fish and a government commission was considering the unthinkable: exterminating every cow in England. It didn't help when the government's chief authority on the outbreak said he couldn't "deny the possibility" that CJD might be as bad as AIDS.
The thing is, no one knows. CJD ordinarily strikes people middle-aged or older, literally eating holes into their brains--like the brains of cows who die from BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), a.k.a. "mad-cow disease." BSE, unknown in America, began striking English cattle in the 1980s; biologists think it came from feeding them the ground-up carcasses of infected sheep, a practice since banned. The new outbreak of CJD comprised only 10 cases--but, ominously, the average age of the victims was only 27. Since CJD could take several decades to show up, no one knows whether these 10 cases are an isolated cluster--or the forerunners of a vast epidemic among people who ate beef in England in the 1980s.
Nor is there any guarantee that English beef is safe; the infectious agent is believed to be a protein, which cannot be destroyed by cooking. Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg called the risk "extremely small." But many Britons remember how the agriculture minister in 1990, John Gummer, called reporters to watch him feed his young daughter a hamburger. It probably didn't help that last week when a reporter showed up at Gummer's house with a hamburger . . . he turned it down.