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BSE in the United Kingdom. Sense-making in disaster management

A short case study

Akademische Arbeit 13 Seiten

Biologie - Genetik / Gentechnologie


Table of contents

History of the Mad Cow Disease:

The Role of Effective Communication and Symbolism to Disaster Risk Management:
The Role of Resilience to Disaster Risk Management




The argument of this case study is to re-echo the importance of sense-making, communication and resilience to disaster risk management. The words ‘mad cow disease’ was first made by David Brown of Daily Telegraph in 2008 (Washer 2010: 91). The mad cow disease was first documented in Southeast England in 1985 when a farm in the region was afflicted by the disease which led to the loss of Sheep on the farm. In 1987 the disease was said to have spread to cattle. The disease was documented initially as bovine spongiform encephalopathy ‘BSE’ The disease affects the central nervous system of an adult cow; also known as ‘bovine spongiform results into cows' aggression and lack of coordination due to the influence of the disease in the brain of the cow. The description of the disease has a sponge-like appearance when examined in the brain of the cow. If and when consumed by humans, it can cause ‘variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease’ (Kim and Jeong 2018:7).

The effects of ‘genetically modified organisms (GMOs)' have been described as disaster risk-prone to human health. The outburst of the ‘Mad Cow disease' otherwise known as ‘bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)' in the UK further encouraged the argument that biotechnology is disaster risk-prone to human health when consumed through agricultural produce. The BSE crisis was also ascribed the first global food safety disaster because of the global export of beef and other dairy products. The disease that emanated from the consumption of BSE contaminated beef is the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (otherwise known as ‘vCJD’). The difference between the vCJD and the CJD is that while the former affects persons of all ages, the latter affects older people from the age of 50 years upwards (Stapleton 2016: 523).

In order to guarantee disaster risk preparedness, there are four (4) factors to be considered:

1. Risk vulnerability assessment
2. Disaster risk preparedness capacity
3. Availability of skilled personnel
4. The flexibility of the system (otherwise known as redundancy systems) to emergency response.'

The above factors are recognised as universal standards of ISO 31000 to serve disaster risk reduction. The objective is to forestall public panic that may lead to further destruction. Also, the other objective is for adequate allocation of resources to deal with the disaster situation. Similarly, effective communication among stakeholders using the bottom-up approach should be adopted. (Lalonde and Boiral 2012: 275).

History of the Mad Cow Disease:

The British government set up the Southwood Committee to examine the crisis in 1988 as part of the disaster preparedness mechanism. The committee traced the cause of the disease the food (‘ruminant-based protein' processed from meat and bone from sheep and cattle) of the cows. Farmers ignored the committee's recommendations to destroy animals diagnosed with the disease due to inadequate compensation to the farmers that were affected by the loss. The disease began to spread from then on to other animals. The crisis became national and international in the global food chain markets as the British government efforts to curtail the situation proved abortive.

The Philips inquiry report raised two issues. Firstly, the report was emphatic about the inadequacy of modern society like the UK to approach disaster management by adopting appropriate technique such as sense-making and effective communication to ensure disaster risk reduction. Secondly, the report did not find a solution to the problem of tackling hazards when they reoccur (Jones 2001: 665). To reiterate the Philips inquiry of the BSE, the people in the UK could not comprehend the risk of the disease to humans. Thus, inquiry adopted three approaches to the analysis of the BSE. ‘Firstly, the source of the BSE and escalation same to cattle. Secondly, the transfer of the BSE to human through consumption. Thirdly, the inability of the government to put in place effective communication mechanism to reduce public tension and panic’ (Jones 2001: 656).

The Philip inquiry attributed the cause of the BSE to advancement in cattle rearing methodology that posed ‘hazards' to human consumption. The Philip inquiry identified protein animal feeds made up of infected meat and bone used to feed cattle as the root cause of the BSE. When humans consume BSE, it resulted in variant Creutzfeldt-Jacobs Disease ‘vCJD' that results in fatality over a given period. Philips inquiry report also admitted that there was no statistical data to determine the number of people that were affected by BSE consumption. Also, the report revealed that government agencies were ineffective at communicating with the public on the BSE subject matter (Jones 2001: 660).

The symptoms of the disease are such that it leads to the ‘loss of memory, uncoordinated speech and the progressive loss of mobility' in humans. The eventual consequence for human infection by the mad cow disease leads to a fatality after one year of infection and display of the disease.


When the BSE crisis broke, it resulted in a national crisis in the United Kingdom. The BSE epidemic afflicted up to 1000, 000 cows that were consumed by people in the UK. The newspapers exaggerated the crisis to such an extent that ‘panic gripped' the people living in the UK. Rather than get clarification from the news, the people in the UK got confusing information as to the actual cause and effect of the disease on the animals and humans alike (Brookes 1999: 252).

The BSE showcased the disaster risk inherent in the consumption of cattle, and the impact that the disease had on the image of the United Kingdom (UK). It was a test on the disaster response mechanism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (MAFF) the arm of government responsible for the formulation, design and implementation food safety policies in the UK (Van Zwanenberg and Millstone 2005: 2).

Although without conceding to the arguments of Neal and Younis (2006: 305) that there was the lack of emergency in the response of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (‘MAFF' the arm of government responsible for the formulation, design and implementation food safety policies in the UK) that led to the spread of the disease and thus made it a global disaster. The argument against this view is that historically the BSE was not the exclusive reserve of the UK but was only first documented in the UK. Other nations, like the United States and Canada, also experienced BSE.

As a matter of preparedness strategy, the government banned the consumption of ‘specified bovine offal (SBO)', the parts of beef that were diagnosed to accommodate the BSE (Neal and Younis 2006: 306). This effort of the UK government alongside other policy measures used to curtail the spread of the disaster that was to occur in other places of the UK.

Authorities raise questions when disaster strike by surprise. This same scenario played out when President Bush of the United States, was informed that the US was under attack on the 11th of September 2001. President Bush was genuinely concerned and bewildered. This reiterates the explanation of analysts that forestalling disaster can be herculean tasks for decision-makers. The ‘detection’ of disaster to enhance disaster risk reduction is usually the focal point for disaster risk management. There are two factors to sense-making. Firstly, early ‘detection' which enable decision-makers to develop programmes and policies for disaster risk reduction. The second factor is ‘understanding' the imminent risk from the source to the end; this helps decision-makers to tackle the root cause of the problem (Boin et al 2016:23).

Specific challenges inhibit disaster detection. These challenges could be due to ‘organisational incapacity; the type of disaster that has ensued; and the socio-political construct of the disaster’. Also, the setbacks to ‘understanding' disaster risk could be attributed to ‘pressure' as a result of lack of comprehension of the crisis; ‘stress' factor, and organisational problems stemming from building relevant redundancy network to approach the crisis. An approach should be taken to ensure proper sense-making of crisis. Strengthening the redundancy network base with adequate technology and information; assembling experts competent to detect the unfolding crisis (analysts have proscribed it as ‘mental slides’); setting up control rooms for ‘HRO (high reliability organisations)’ such as law enforcement agents; adopting effective communications such as the social media to broadcast information to the public to reduce panic and chaos (Boin et al 2016:43).

The use of collaborative planning as a tool for effective communication is necessary. The fact that stakeholders alike are actively engaged in developing the disaster risk reduction mechanism. Another merit of this theory is that it gives room to identify shortcomings as regards resilience building and disaster preparedness (Nguyen, Imamura and Luchi 2017: 136).

The argument advanced by scholars and practitioners of risk alike is that disaster management heavily relies on effective communication. The dilemma faced by policymakers, however, is how, who, when, and what to communicate to the public. The objective for the policymakers is disaster risk reduction; thus, they have choices telling the real story, or manufacturing facts and figures that suits public ears. The result is to forestall public panic. Compared to Canada’s experience of the BSE, the argument was that the communication of policymakers to the public was ineffective leading to economic loss estimated to be ‘$5 billion' in November 2003. The cause of the loss to Canadian farmers was due to the ineffective communication of the ‘two cases of the BSE', to the public (Leiss 2004: 229). For effective communication and risk management strategy, the Canadian government was expected to have said:

1. 'The likelihood of BSE in homegrown Canadian cow;
2. The likelihood of export lockout by of Canada if a cow is discovered to have BSE
3. The likelihood of Canada export being locked out for up to seven years.'

The argument of Leiss (2004: 229 and 234) is that the above statements from the policymakers would have averted the economic loss suffered by farmers if the government had done things differently. There would have been less investment flow towards more production of beef. All along the campaign of the policymakers was that BSE was never going to enter the Canadian food chain.

The Role of Effective Communication and Symbolism to Disaster Risk Management:

The importance of communication to curtail the impact of disaster risk is necessary. Given this analysis, scholars have argued to say the UK did not do enough to curtail the BSE crisis due to lack of effective communication (Webster, Douglas and Sato 2010: 221). The argument is valid given the efforts of the UK government to downplay the crisis when it first erupted and eventually became a national disaster. There are three stages to the crisis the first being 1986 to 1996; this was when the disease was discovered in cattle and classified as an agricultural challenge. The second stage was from 1996 to 2000. BSE has discovered to be harmful to human health. The third stage was in the year 2000 to date, the UK government agencies responsible for food safety and agricultural production are rejuvenated to curtail the health hazards of BSE (Webster, Douglas and Sato 2010: 221).

A crisis is the opportunity to display leadership. The roles that leaders play during and after the disaster is key to their continued success in office (Boin and Hart 2003:544). Three arguments ensued in the article. Firstly, a crisis is susceptible to changes and thus difficult to manage. Crisis management is never the same as good policies. One of the ways of developing crisis-proof policy is the length of time and engagement of persons involved in the overall implementation of the policy (Boin and 't Hart 2003: 545 and 551).

There steps to take to formulate the best policy that would assist crisis management, namely:

1. Openness to criticism during policy formation and decision making
2. Avoid ‘induced crisis’: know what is workable and what is not workable
3. Policymakers must have bright ideas about what policies are valid and invalid. Persuasion is the key to encouraging others to buy into the policy.

The prohibition of British beef by the European Union coincided with the time when there were highlights on the adoption of the Euro currency by the European continent as a single currency. Symbolic as this may sound, it was a threat to the supremacy of the Pounds which had high exchange rate in the Eurozone and globally. As a result, these events ‘British national identity' was rekindled (Brookes 1999: 247).

Brookes (1999: 261), have argued that symbolism of the UK at the time of the BSE outbreak was negative and unwelcoming, due to the impression created on the news. The only means by which the UK government was able to reduce the chaos created by the BSE was through the use of positive imagery of solidarity. The hazards to human health when the UK government announced the link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). This development sparked the disaster preparedness mechanism. The contingency plans that were in place involved the interconnectivity of all government apparatus in helping to reduce the impact of the disease on humans (Smith, Young and Gibson 1999: 9).

The outbreak of the BSE affected the image of the UK government. Analysts argued that the government did not do enough to tackle the spread of the risk or hazards that the BSE posed to human health. Secondly, there was no adequate communication of the risk or hazards that the BSE posed to human health. The argument was that the government had the responsibility to give adequate information that would assist the public make decisions. The use of the word ‘risk' had a different meaning to different people. There was the use of phrases such as ‘hypothetical risk', ‘minimal risk’ ‘unsafe’; these phrases gave conflicting interpretations to the public (Donaldson 2001: 371).



ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
University of Queensland – University of Queensland



Titel: BSE in the United Kingdom. Sense-making in disaster management