Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Mad Cow Backflip Denies Science

By Simon Grose

Politicians have given in to public fears about the safety of beef imports rather than doing “what the science tells us”.

Doing “what the science tells us” is a powerful slogan in the climate debate. Labor and the Greens invoke the weight of scientific opinion when they argue for action on climate change, scorning opponents as science “deniers”.

Agriculture Minister Tony Burke was consistent on this score when he cited scientific evidence as the reason for lifting a blanket ban on beef imports from countries that have recorded cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. BSE is caused by proteins in animal products contained in processed cattle food. Humans who eat BSE-infected meat can contract the cruel Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Under his decision, which came into effect on 1 March, countries that had reported cases of BSE could apply to sell beef products to Australia. Approval would be subject to assessment by Food Standards Australia New Zealand of each country’s controls to ensure that their beef came from animals free of BSE. That covers the threat to human health.

As for the chance that BSE-infected material could get into our cattle feed, Australian regulations do not allow imported material to be fed to cattle and we do not allow live imports of cattle. “Where there’s no scientific argument to say there’s a problem, we can’t go around just erecting barriers for the sake of it,” Burke told ABC’s Country Hour in early February.

The day after the new policy came into effect, he reaffirmed this at a conference in Canberra. “If the science says that if protocols are followed there is no possible public health argument, then there is no biosecurity argument,” he said.

A week later he was a denier of that science when he dumped the new policy and set in train a 2-year risk analysis to take the issue off the domestic agenda. “Community concerns which have come tome directly through my Labor colleagues and the media have made it clear that the Australian community wants to retain the best possible food safety standards and extend those standards to any imported beef,” he said. It’s likely that the concerns which provoked his meek about-face came from a Labor colleague called Kevin and were about votes.

The Nationals had been scare - mongering, denying the science by claiming that BSE could get into Australia’s cattle herd. Greens Senator Christine Milne, the high priestess of science when it comes to climate change, also turned science denier, saying "the free trade agenda must not be allowed to put public health and clean markets at risk”.

So, on this issue, all political parties agree to deny “what the science tells us”. Nice one if you like irony; not so nice if you respect science.