Britain is in the midst of a food scare that has seen sales of beef drop 25 percent in the last two weeks.
This has nothing to do with concern about cholesterol levels from eating red meat.
It arises from fear of contracting a disease that inevitably ends in a particularly horrible death.
Nine years ago, British cows started coming down with a disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease.
Cows that contract it lose coordination, become apprehensive, suffer drops in milk yield and show excessive sensitivity to stimulation. When they die from the disease, as they always do, their brains are found to be spongy and filled with holes.
The outbreak of the disease, which soon reached epidemic proportions, led to fears that people eating beef could contract the human equivalent of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Human sufferers develop manic dementia, then loss of brain function. Finally, they go into a coma and die.
Recently, several deaths among farmers and teen-agers, the findings of a television program and the warnings of a prominent neuropathologist against eating beef products revived the scares over CreutzfeldtJakob disease.
More than 1,000 schools have removed beef or beef products from their cafeteria menus, and some hospitals stopped giving beef to patients. A major bakery chain banned British beef from its meat pies.
Sales of beef plummeted, while chicken, venison and other meats suddenly became more popular than ever.
Since 1987, British beef consumption has declined steadily, from 44.2 pounds a year per capita to 34.1 pounds in 1995.
A great deal of money is at stake. The British beef industry normally earns $6 billion a year. France, Germany and Italy banned British beef imports in 1990, but later relented after the European Union agreed to improved conditions for British beef exports later that year.
The government has contended all along that no link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has been established. But until now no one has been able to prove there is no such link, and some critics have accused the Agriculture Ministry of being in the pocket of beef producers, more concerned about sales than public health.
The strongest evidence to date that the government may be right came two weeks ago from Professor John Collinge of St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. He said experiments he had conducted, partly funded by the Agriculture Ministry, show that humans cannot develop the disease by eating infected beef.
Most scientists hailed his findings as highly reassuring, but some said further research was needed before a link could definitely be ruled out.