The German government has been prompted to order extensive tests on cows following the identification last week of two cases of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in German-born cattle. Within the next few weeks it should learn whether these cases represent only the tip of an iceberg.
Many scientists fear that the true extent of the disease may have been hidden. Germany had declared itself 'BSE-free', largely because its farmers have not traditionally fed their cattle on the blood and bone-meal that are thought to have sparked the crisis in Britain.
The precautions taken have therefore not been as rigorous as in other countries. When Britain banned the use of bone-meal as feed in all farm animals, for example, Germany banned its use only in cattle, allowing it to continue in pigs and poultry.
Moreover, Germany has only carried out BSE tests on animals showing symptoms of central nervous system disturbance — there have been around 15,000 such tests in the past ten years.
The federal government has now called for testing of all cattle at high risk of developing BSE, including those dying of unknown causes. Such cases average 66,000 per year. Cattle slaughtered over the age of 30 months might also be added to the list, because older cattle have a higher risk of accumulating the infectious prions thought to cause the disease.
In the wake of last week's discovery, some scientists say that German complacency was misplaced. Hans Kretzschmar, a prion expert at the University of Munich, and a member of an ad hoc group of experts called on occasionally to advise the government, regrets that scientific advice on the matter was not institutionalized in Germany. “There was a feeling that Germany could never be affected by BSE, so a standing advisory committee would not be necessary,” he says.
“But when an animal born in Germany in 1996 contracts BSE, even though the use of blood and bone-meal was banned in cattle in 1994, you start to wonder what can be believed,” Kretzschmar says. He warns that variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, the human form of BSE, may now arrive in Germany.
“We have been too complacent in assuming that Germany was immune,” says Reinhard Kurth, head of the Robert Koch Institute, the government agency that researches into infectious diseases. Kurth regrets what he sees as the general lack of a sound scientific basis in dealing with BSE issues.