Saturday, September 29, 2007

A little light on a vexing problem...

I have been curious, like many others, why the United Kingdom seems to be the epicenter of livestock diseases. And it seems to be ongoing, despite vigorous efforts by farmers and health officials. The reasons are subtle, and some would never have occurred to me.
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 BSE 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. [More possible reasons]
I lean toward the reporting exaggeration effect, but having flown through Heathrow several times (and lived to tell the story) I find the airline garbage idea logical as well. British media pick up every tiny scrap of news, and have elevated the coverage of this far beyond the actual risk. It may be such reports will become tiresome, and as no public harm has emerged, indifference will reduce the alarm.


Anonymous said...

I though they incinerated all international airplane garbage

John Phipps said...


Color me clueless on this one. I usually find Slate to be on target. If I found out anything else, I'll post it.