As vCJD – the human form of Mad Cow Disease (BSE) – hits the headlines again, a forthcoming documentary featuring Portsmouth journalist and campaigner Christine Lord investigates how BSE-infected material entered the human food chain and its devastating consequences for families across the UK. Sarah Cheverton reports.
A new documentary from Partickular Films – narrated by Eastenders and Outlander actor Ian Reddington – revists the BSE crisis of the 1980s, interviewing experts, farmers and animal rights campaigners alongside families who have lost loved ones to vCJD.
Cows, Cash and Cover-ups? – you can watch the trailer below – explores the government’s handling of the food crisis and the wider ethics of the farming and food industry, and was filmed in both the UK and USA. The documentary investigates how materials infected by the disease entered the human food chain, including an interview with a farmer giving an insider’s view of the malpractices that took place in the UK during the BSE crisis.
The film also tells the story of the victims of vCJD, including exclusive interviews with a family talking for the first time about the impact of vCJD on their lives and their experience of being refused medical treatment by the NHS, and interviews with parents and siblings of vCJD victims who have never before told their personal stories.
The documentary’s director Joseph Andrew Mclean told S&C, ‘I was motivated to make this film after filming an interview in Scotland with Tommy Goodwin, who lost his son Grant to vCJD in 2009. Tommy started talking about other families across the UK who have lost loved ones to this horrible disease.
‘I realised that my short documentary would soon be expanded into a feature length project, as more and more families agreed to be interviewed. I wanted to give the families an opportunity to tell their story and to reach as wide an audience as possible, in the hope that it reminds people this is a disease has not gone away; it’s not confined to the history books and the families can’t have closure until they know exactly what killed their children.’
Christine Lord, a Portsmouth-based journalist and campaigner, whose son Andy died of vCJD in 2007 aged 24 years old, appears in the new film. Christine is pictured above at Pitsham Farm in West Sussex, where cows were first officially recognised as having BSE in 1984.
In an interview for Star & Crescent in 2015, Christine said, ‘My son was killed at the altar of greed and money.’
Her campaign – Justice 4 Andy – aims to get justice for her son and all victims of vCJD and, she says, ‘is part of a broader fight for safer food and health policies and for full accountability for the victims of vCJD’.
In 2014, Christine gave evidence to a Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry into vCJD and blood safety which published its findings in a final report: ‘After the storm? UK blood safety and the risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease’. The report criticised the government for not being able to ‘provide reliable data either on the total number of people designated “at risk” [of vCJD] or the number who have been notified of this fact.’
The report also made several recommendations, including a call for the government ‘to research atypical dementia in the elderly and, through this, the potential rate of undiagnosed CJD (amid concerns that CJD is being misdiagnosed as dementia).’
Those who remember the outbreak of the BSE crisis in 1984 – including the unforgettable moment when then Secretary of State for Agriculture John Gummer attempted to feed his 4 year old daughter a beef burger in front of the British media (she refused) – might imagine that the issue has long been consigned to history. However, the Select Committee report refutes this claim:
Twenty years on, the feared epidemic has not materialised and vCJD has, to an extent, slipped from public consciousness. However, there remains much that we do not understand about vCJD and little to suggest that it should be dismissed as a threat. While cases of vCJD are now rare, recent studies indicate that tens of thousands of people in the UK might be ‘silent’ carriers of the prions responsible for the disease and could perhaps transmit those prions to others. The most likely form of onward transmission is through blood transfusion.
More recently, BSE returned to the news, this time alongside fears over Chronic Wasting Disease in US deer, ‘a neurological disorder comparable to Mad Cow Disease which causes deer, elk and moose to gradually deteriorate, stare vacantly and eventually starve to death’.
There are rising concerns post-Brexit that the UK could open its doors to beef products which don’t meet EU safety standards. Of particular concern is that the developing trade deal between London and Washington could compel the UK market to re-open imports of US foods that we previously rejected. The US meat industry has strongly contested EU restrictions on animal by-products (such as brains and spinal chords) being used in animal feed, which can result in livestock diseases, including BSE. The US currently tests less than 1% of its cattle going to slaughter for BSE.
Beyond Brexit and the US trade deal, the UK’s scientific community has its concerns about BSE. The New Scientist reported that ‘many more people could still die from Mad Cow Disease in the UK’ following fears that a new wave of cases of vCJD, the human form of BSE, may have been misdiagnosed. The disease has a long incubation period spanning several decades.
As Christine Lord says in the documentary, ‘the latest health protection research shows that 1 in 2000 of the UK population now carry vCJD … [It] has not gone away.’
The trailer for Cows, Cash and Cover-ups is available online and the full film will be released internationally after it’s shown on the film festival circuit. The makers are currently in discussion with UK television networks to show the documentary on mainstream TV, and any profits made will go to ongoing vCJD campaigns.
Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan met with Christine Lord in October 2017 and received a copy of her book about the death of Andrew Black, her son, from BSE, ‘Who Killed My Son’.
Writing on her blog, Justice for Andy, Christine said, ‘During our meeting, Stephen Morgan and I discussed many of the deadly and ongoing public health issues regarding human mad cow disease. Post-Brexit the stakes are even higher.’