The Importance of Risk Perception



The BSE epidemic was under control in 2000. The chance to contract  BSE in the Netherlands in 2011 is astronomically small. In 2008 I calculated that if all Dutch (16.5 million) would consume ± 400 cows per person, one case might occur. The guidelines to safely process animal material are known.. 20 billion euros per year is currently wasted in Europe without saving a live.. 5 billion euro’s was already sufficient to globally control malaria saving millions of lifes.


The cynical history: BSE originated in England. Undercooked offal from infected animals was used as animal feed. The first cow  with  BSE was detected in 1986. The ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cows was introduced in 1988. Contaminated meat and bone meal, however, was knowingly exported to the EU until 1990. England dumped the contaminated material in the IIIrd World to mid 90s. The first human case of vCJD occurred in 1994 in England. A number of other European countries ignored BSE increasing the problem. For example, Germany banned the consumption of organ much too late (2001). These countries were "BSE free" because they refused to implement  an adequate test protocol. Mad cows were surprisingly tested on rabies first. The deteriorating brains of the suspected animals were stored in the refrigerator till the outcome of the rabies test was negative In the mean time the active agent of BSE, the prions, were degraded resulting in a negative BSE-test.  One newspaper headline from 2001 ironically reported  that Germans shifted en masse  to ostrich meat . "After ostrich politics, time for a genuine ostrich steak!”.

May 2011 the global vCJD dead count was 219 (UK: 175) cases of vCJD worldwide in 14.5 years time. Just for the order of magnitude, every year about 80 people die of food poisoning (estimate by Prof.  Marcel Zwietering, Food Microbiology, Wageningen) in the Netherlands.

How big is the risk of contracting vCJD in 2011?  In Britain, about 500,000 (source EFSA) sick cows entered the food chain without adequate removal of risk materials such as brains, spinal cord and certain organs. The meat of these contagious cows yielded 175 cases of the deadly disease vCJD in Britain in 14.5 years time. In the Netherlands approximately 100 infected cows were missed and entered the food chain. This yielded three cases of vCJD in 14.5 years . On average 58 million UK citizen ate about 500,000 infected cows (EFSA).  One infected cow was on average consumed by 160,000 Dutch  compared to 1 by 100 Brits (Scots, Welshmen, etc.). About 1 out of 300.000 became ill in the UK. To calculate the risk of contracting BSE in the Netherlands one should not use the 3 cases in the Netherlands.The number is too small and these victims may have contracted  the disease in the UK, France or Germany. Calculating the probability of contracting BSE in the Netherlands using the infectivity data of the UK leads to an astronomical small chance. 1 in 1.6 billion per year Dutch becoming ill. It is very unlikely that the three Dutch victims contracted the disease in the Netherlands. 

The human variant of BSE is a frightening disease, but does the already extremely low risk in the early 2000's justify the whole package of expensive measures in 2011 (with input Prof. Van Knapen and Berendse, Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht)? There is a discussion of a gradual easing of measures, but why waste so much time at the expense of the environment and world food production?

The 2002 report of the World Health Organization states that if no animal protein is fed, the risk of BSE is almost 0. A heat treatment of 60 minutes at 132°C or equivalent  is also sufficient to ensure safety of animal protein. On top of that, all risk material is still removed at time of slaughter. The EU implemented in January 2001 that animals over 30 months had to be tested for BSE. In fact, the epidemic was already over at that time. The frequency of positive results among slaughter animals in the Netherlands was in March 2005 3 out of  475000 and dropped to 1 in 275,000 in 2006 and 0 in 2009. The costs were ± 50 Euro per test and were estimated to total 15 million euros in the Netherlands per year. Even  we abolished testing,  0-1 infected cow would only enter the food chain. On top of that the risk material of that 0-1 cow would also have been removed.

In preventive medicine it is acceptable to invest of 15.000 to 50.000 Euro per saved life year (600,000 - 2,000,000 for an average remaining lifespan). For the prevention of vCJD, the investment for the test only exceeds 15 billion Euro per saved Dutchman. More math (the consumption of 2500 infected cows (without removing the risk material)  led to one death in the UK. 1 : 275,000 cows was positive in 2006) leads to the shocking result: Consumption of approximately 400 cows per Dutchman would yield  only one death on the current population of 16,500,000 Dutch taking the figures of 2006. Taking the figures of 2009 one can even eat an infinite number of burgers

Nutreco had a strong point that there are cheaper ways to control BSE under control destroying a capital of 20 billion euros of animal protein. One can save 10.000 to 30.000 life’s in preventive health care) with the use of animal meal. Implementing HACCP in quality control of captive animal meal production as the food is cheap and effective. The costs of BSE for the pharmaceutical industry, individual butchers and the environment are not even included in my speech. Can we afford this ostrich approach? Will our Ministry together with the RIVM dare to battle the European windmills to stop this costly and unnecessary measures?

Dr. Pieter ter Steeg (Ter SteegMC, Gouda, former science director Microbiology, Unilever)

Ir. Klaske of Hoeij (Food Doctors, Woerden, former senior technologist TNO;

Ali Eggenkamp (Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht),

Dr.. Niek  Persoon (InHolland, Amsterdam)

Dr.. Bert Krijnen (Change & Learning Dordrecht, former Division - Unilever Research)

Mieke Rottink (Gouda)

Dr. Jacques Bakker (Evolvip, Breda, former - Philips)

Joke Pols (Moordrecht)

Elma  van t Hof (Schiedam)

Prof.  Rudy Rabbinge - Wageningen University

Henri Boere (artist, Gouda,)

Drs. Arnold Dijkstra (former associate professor of Food Safety and Quality, Wageningen)

Ir. Francoise de Goeijen (Provimi, Rotterdam)

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