September, Dr. Malm shuttered the company, losing 400,000
marks (about $195,000 or 203,600 euros). A few weeks
later, another lab discovered the first of Germany's seven
confirmed cases of mad-cow disease.
"It's no surprise they didn't
discover any cases of BSE until
now," Dr. Malm says. "They didn't find anything
because they didn't want to look."
A spokesman for the Bavarian Health
Ministry, Bernhard Seidenath,
says the state government blocked the use of Prionics'
tests because it feared they might be unreliable; Prionics
says its test is the most reliable available. Mr. Seidenath
called the threat to effectively shut down Bovinia "history
from a long time ago."
Bovinia's fate helps explain why
it is only now, nearly five
years after Britain acknowledged a link between BSE and
a similar brain-wasting disease in humans, that much of
continental Europe is accepting that it, too, faces a "mad-cow"
problem. A form of BSE, having jumped the species
barrier, has killed more than 80 people, almost all in
The first cases of BSE in Denmark,
Germany and Spain were recorded
only recently -- last spring in Denmark, November
in Germany and Spain. The incidence in France quintupled
last year. Before that, the cattle disease almost certainly
existed, but most European Union countries weren't
seriously looking for it and, in some cases, thwarted
those who were.
Germany began massive BSE testing
only in December, after the
first recorded case of German BSE rattled consumers
and shook the government. All across the Continent,
as interviews with independent scientists, members
of EU inspection teams, local veterinarians and government
regulators suggest, measures for tracking mad-cow
disease have been haphazard, poorly executed and,
in many countries, nearly absent altogether.
Tens of thousands of cattle have
died on Continental farms without
any BSE checks at all. Vets, in turn, lacked the training
and resources to identify and test cattle showing BSE
symptoms, either on farms or in slaughterhouses. The EU
did agree in early 1998 to a limited program of random
testing. While a similar scheme in Switzerland quickly
doubled the number of confirmed cases of mad-cow
disease, the EU program instead fell victim to bureaucracy
and political indifference.
"We cannot say if this is a
new peak in the incidence of BSE
or if the upsurge in cases this [past] year is only because
surveillance wasn't sufficient before," says Gerard
Pascal, chairman of the European Commission's standing
scientific committee on BSE and a leading authority
on the subject.
A stepped-up testing program for
mad-cow disease that the EU
launched last week to calm consumers has stirred more
fear and confusion, especially in Germany and Spain,
where BSE cases are up sharply. After the first week
of compulsory testing, Spain cited three new BSE cases
Friday, taking its total to five.
The same day, Germany announced plans
to broaden its testing to cover
younger animals after a private company found
a case of BSE in a 28-month-old cow. The EU testing
program, which started last Monday, requires BSE testing
for all animals older than 30 months; the German Health
Ministry now wants to lower the threshold to 24 months.
Even after the recent surge in BSE
cases, the reported incidence
of the disease on the Continent remains low -- well
under 2,000 since 1990, compared with nearly 180,000
in Britain. But the mounting evidence of negligence
threatens to stir a political storm over why, for five
years, Europe's health and agricultural authorities refused
to face up to the disease, allowing hundreds of contaminated
animals into the food chain.
Peter Moritz knows all about insufficient
surveillance. As the doctor
in charge of the main veterinary testing lab for southern
Bavaria, he is responsible for checking the brains of
cattle found dead on farms or slaughtered under vets' orders
after they showed the symptoms of stumbling or fatigue
associated with BSE. The procedure Dr. Moritz used
until recently (he now uses the Prionics test) is fairly
simple: He treated the brains with
dye, then inspected slices of
them under a microscope to see if cells had burst under
the influence of prions, the killer proteins in both BSE
and its human counterpart.
Scores of such brains have been delivered
to Dr. Moritz's lab in Oberschleissheim.
But half of them were too old or too
damaged to be tested properly. Dr. Moritz blames German
Under German law, a farmer with a
dead cow that showed signs of
BSE must call in a veterinarian. The vet calls in one
of a fleet of certified trucks lined with leakproof stainless
steel for transporting carcasses. The trucks, operated
by a private franchise holder, don't work on Sundays.
Eventually, a regional vet takes delivery of the carcass,
removes the brain and ships it in a sealed box to Dr.
Moritz. The process can take days.
Of the 152 brains Dr. Moritz received
in 2000, he was able to test
only 62, or about 40%. And that percentage drops
during the winter, when the brains freeze, rupturing brain
cells and sweeping away the telltale signs of BSE.
"Most of the samples we received
in our laboratory came from
cattle that died at a farm with tissue samples too poor
to diagnose," he says. "It is possible that animals that
died of BSE never got tested."
Mr. Seidenath of the Bavarian Health
Ministry says part of the problem
may lie with Dr. Moritz's testing methods, but he
acknowledges that the government needs to speed up the
delivery of brain samples.
The discovery of BSE in Germany was
especially embarrassing because
it had nothing to do with the government.
The first case was uncovered because Ulrich Spengler,
the director of a small private testing laboratory in
Hamburg, Artus AG, made a useful business contact through
his Spanish teacher.
In 1998, Dr. Spengler, 33, quit a
doctoral program at the Institute
for Tropical Diseases in Hamburg to set up a three-person
lab for Germany's organic-food market, offering
testing for diseases such as salmonella, which the German
government doesn't check systematically. He decided
early this year to add BSE tests to his list of services
and, like Dr. Malm, flew to Zurich to stitch up a contract
with Prionics. The Hamburg Health Inspection Ministry
didn't threaten to shut him down, though he says local
politicians went around telling potential customers that
testing was a waste of time.
Then, last autumn, his Spanish teacher
told him about a small slaughterhouse
in Galenburg, in Lower Saxony, that was
trying to establish a niche market for organic beef. Dr.
Spengler traveled to Galenburg to try to sell his salmonella
testing service. As an afterthought, he threw in BSE
testing. "It was my first customer, so I made them a
special cheap offer for the two types
of tests," Dr. Spengler
Within a month, tests at Galenburg
uncovered Germany'sfirst confirmed case of BSE.
-- Edward Taylor and Konstantin
Richter contributed to this
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