Why do British cattle get so many diseases?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 28 2007 5:48 PM

What's Wrong With British Cattle?

Why do they get so many diseases?

What's with all the disease outbreaks? 
Click image to expand.
What's with all the disease outbreaks?

It's been a rough start to the fall for British farmers, with reports of sporadic cases of BSE (mad cow disease) and more cases of foot-and-mouth disease. And then on Friday, British public health officials officially pronounced an outbreak of bluetongue disease among the nation's cattle. So what makes British cattle so sickly?

Heathrow Airport. Agriculture experts say the outbreaks in the United Kingdom are the result of bad luck more than anything else. But the country does have the distinction of being Europe's primary landing spot for global travel, and that could put livestock at risk. Travelers from every continent pass through London Heathrow Airport (the busiest airport in the world for international traffic), and with them comes food waste from airplanes. Pathology researchers consider airline food waste, which is sometimes processed into food for livestock, the greatest danger to animal health in the world. Airline garbage that's contaminated with foreign diseases can end up in livestock troughs, or it goes to landfills where it might infect wild animals—who could then spread illness to domesticated livestock.


It's also possible that British cattle are simply the victims of bad publicity. Most European countries, as well as nations in Africa, Asia, and North America, have had confirmed cases of the three major livestock diseases—mad cow, foot and mouth, and bluetongue. But the United Kingdom happens to have one of the best systems in the world for reporting these outbreaks. Since the country was struck with a devastating foot-and-mouth epidemic in 1968, British health officials have developed a surveillance network with a very high degree of transparency. * This ensures that individual cases of diseases are immediately reported to the government, and appropriate action is taken. So the British cattle may not be any more sickly than those in other parts of the world; they might just be getting watched a bit more closely.

British cattle have had their reputation tarnished by chronic cases of mad cow disease. The origins of that infection remain murky, but it has been strongly linked to changes in the rendering process  for food, usually meat particles, fed to livestock. * Meat that had not been "deactivated," or made innocuous, infected animals with a malicious, brain-degenerating protein. But shifts in rendering methods were occurring throughout Europe, and not just in the United Kingdom. British farmers may have been the unlucky ones who got struck first.

The United Kingdom has also suffered from the illegal importation of infected livestock. The 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which delayed British elections and caused millions of animals to be slaughtered, was of Asian origin: Untested swine were sneaked into the country and processed into food for U.K. livestock. This isn't just a British problem, however; allcountries have similar issues with the informal, black-market trade in livestock. And this year's foot-and-mouth outbreak was a complete fluke—a U.K. laboratory inadvertently released the virus.

Got a question about the news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Juan Lubroth *  of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Greg Stevenson of Purdue University.

Correction, Oct. 1, 2007:This article originally mentioned a late-1960s outbreak of mad cow disease. The outbreak was actually foot-and-mouth disease; mad cow was
not discovered until the late-1980s. (
Return to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Oct. 4, 2007:This article originally misspelled Juan Lubroth's name.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.