The (bad) science behind the MMR hoax

The world-wide panic over the MMR vaccine was sparked by the actions of one doctor who breached several standards of scientific practice. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

Every few years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a series of ‘death tables’, a summary of how many people died in a given year and the causes of death. The tables make interesting reading. The figures published for 2004 show that a third of all deaths worldwide were due to infectious diseases, a staggering 15.1 million people1. Of these, four million may have been prevented by vaccination.

As a microbiologist, I am staggered by the growing anti-vaccination movement. Vaccination has to be the success story of ‘modern’ medicine. Just look at the benefits: vaccination can provide lifelong protection, does not rely on correct diagnosis or treatment being available and can avoid some forms of auto-immune disease that can be triggered by infection. As the saying goes, prevention is better than a cure. While it is true that vaccines are not 100 percent risk-free, the benefits to both the vaccinated individual and the wider community (through ‘herd immunity’) far outweigh the risks.

What is fascinating about vaccination ‘hysteria’ is that different countries have different scares, even though they are using the same vaccines. One such scare, which has resulted in a resurgence of measles in a number of countries, relates to the MMR vaccine. This is a freeze-dried preparation of three living but disabled viruses: measles, mumps and rubella. In the 1990s, a British doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield claimed there was a link between MMR vaccination and autism. He claimed to have discovered a new syndrome, which he called autistic colitis, in which autistic children were found to have a particular kind of gut disease.

He also claimed to have found that the appearance of symptoms of autism coincided with MMR vaccination, and children with autistic colitis had measles virus in their guts. His findings were based on a study of 12 children with developmental and intestinal problems, published in the Lancet medical journal in 19982. Nine of the children were diagnosed with autism. The children were believed to have been developing normally and then suddenly regressed, and parents were asked to recall how close to the time of MMR vaccination the symptoms appeared.

The study suffers from a number of crucial flaws, not least the lack of blinding or control groups, or potential for parents to incorrectly recall the appearance of symptoms. It also turned out that Andrew Wakefield had numerous conflicts of interest: he was receiving money from lawyers looking to build a case against a vaccine manufacturer, had submitted a patent on an alternative measles vaccine, breached ethics compliances and even paid children at a birthday party for donating blood.

The journalist Brian Deer was instrumental in bringing all of these conflicts to the public’s attention and has maintained a website ( summarising his investigations into Wakefield and the MMR debacle. Recently, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) commissioned Deer to write a series of articles summarising his findings3-5. In 2010, Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of misconduct and struck off the medical register in the UK and the Lancet finally retracted his paper.

In an editorial accompanying one of Deer’s articles, the BMJ’s editors asked:

“What of Wakefield’s other publications? In light of this new information their veracity must be questioned. Past experience tells us that research misconduct is rarely isolated behaviour.”

What of his other work? Indeed, the Lancet paper was just the first in a series of papers by Wakefield attempting to link autism with measles. One of the things he showed was that measles virus could be detected in the guts of autistic children using a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is a fantastic technique used to amplify very small amounts of target genetic material to generate over a billion copies. In a nutshell this means PCR can take something that is undetectable and make it detectable. However, one of the downsides of such a sensitive technique is that it is very easy to contaminate, so proper controls are really important. For those who want to know how PCR works, there are some very nice videos online (youtube/eEcy9k_KsDI).
One of the crucial things needed to carry out PCR is a set of very specific ‘primers’ which recognise the region of genetic material that you want to amplify (Fig 1). You need primers to each end of the region of interest and then PCR amplifies the bit between the primers. So if the primers match the wrong region, you will end up with a large amount of the wrong thing, a classic case of garbage in, garbage out. So the important things to remember are:

  1. The primers need to be specific so that they only amplify what you are targeting and nothing else.
  2. You have to be very, very careful not to contaminate the reaction.

To make sure the primers are specific and nothing has been contaminated, it is crucial to include a number of controls alongside the samples being tested:

  1. A negative control which has water in place of any target genetic material which will tell you whether you have had a contamination problem or not.
  2. A negative control which has control genetic material that does not contain any of the target sequence which will tell you if your primers are specific enough.
  3. A positive control which has genetic material that does contain the target sequence which will tell you if your reaction has worked.

So, you have your samples and your controls, the PCR machine has done its dash and you are left with a little tube filled with billions of copies of the target sequence (or none if the sample was negative…). This can then be visualised by gel electrophoresis and you are left with something like the picture in Fig 2.
Lane 1 contains a size standard, lane 2 is the negative control containing no genetic material, lane 3 is the negative control containing no target sequence (the very faint band is just the background genetic material), lane 4 is the positive control containing the target sequence and lanes 5 and 6 are our unknown samples (which in this case are all positive). It is important to say here that very rarely would you see an actual gel published in a paper. Most results are just described as the number of positive or negative samples. This is important as it leaves the reader assuming the correct controls were done. But it doesn’t end with gel electrophoresis. To make absolutely certain, the amplified genetic material can be sequenced to confirm it is the correct thing. And if the claims you are making are wide-reaching and/or controversial then sequencing is exactly what should be done.

Andrew Wakefield hypothesised that exposure to the measles virus in the MMR vaccine was a factor in the emergence of his so-called ‘autistic colitis’ and that genetic material from the measles virus would be found in patients with the disease but not healthy controls. He supervised PhD student Nick Chadwick to investigate. The first paper they published (in January 1998) was in the Journal of Virological Methods, reporting a “rapid, sensitive and robust procedure” for amplifying measles RNA6. In August 1998 they published a second paper describing the use of the procedure to look for measles virus in samples from patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)7. They state:

“These results show that either measles virus RNA was not present in the samples, or was present below the sensitivity limits known to have been achieved”.

They then went on to look at the children reported in the, now retracted, Lancet paper (that is, the ones with ‘autistic colitis’). Wakefield never published these results but Nick Chadwick did write up his PhD thesis in 1998. Brian Deer has put the relevant information from the thesis on his website ( Nick Chadwick concludes: “None of the samples tested positive for measles, mumps or rubella RNA, although viral RNA was successfully amplified in positive control samples”. Despite this negative result from 1998, Wakefield then appears as senior author alongside a team of Japanese researchers in a paper published in April 2000 in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences8 where they report the detection of measles virus:

“One of eight patients with Crohn disease, one of three patients with ulcerative colitis, and three of nine children with autism, were positive. Controls were all negative. The sequences obtained from the patients with Crohn’s disease shared the characteristics with wild-strain virus. The sequences obtained from the patients with ulcerative colitis and children with autism were consistent with being vaccine strains.”

In 2002 Wakefield then published another, bigger study of children suffering ‘autistic colitis’ with a team from Ireland9. They reported:

“Seventy five of 91 patients with a histologically confirmed diagnosis of ileal lymphonodular hyperplasia and enterocolitis were positive for measles virus in their intestinal tissue compared with five of 70 control patients.”

Yasmin D’Souza and colleagues at McGill University in Canada published a very nice study in 2007 in which they compared the primers used by both the Japanese and Irish groups with their own primers for the measles virus on a range of IBD and control intestinal biopsy samples10. Any positive samples were verified by sequencing.

And the results? The primers used by Wakefield and colleagues weren’t specific for measles virus. In fact, the amplified fragments were found to be of mammalian origin. What this means is that human samples should all be positive. Unsurprisingly, when D’Souza tried using genuine measles specific primers they “failed to demonstrate the presence of MV [measles virus] nucleic acids in intestinal biopsy samples from either patients with IBD or controls”. They also failed to find any measles virus in samples taken from over 50 autistic children11. This does suggest that Andrew Wakefield’s research conduct does not stop with the Lancet study.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that there is no link between vaccination and autism. Despite this, Andrew Wakefield is held up by many as a hero, fighting a corrupt system with the ‘evil’ pharmaceutical industry at its centre. Wakefield has recently published a book entitled Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines – The Truth Behind a Tragedy. One reviewer wrote:

“Dr. Wakefield sets the record straight. It was not he who showed callous disregard towards vulnerable, sick children with autism. It was the British medical establishment, the General Medical Council, the media and the pharmaceutical industry that threw the children under the bus to protect the vaccine program. This is a book for everyone who cares about our future”.

Who needs evidence, hey?


  1. WHO website.
  2. Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, et al. (1998). Lancet 351(9103): 637-41. RETRACTED.
  3. Deer B (2011). BMJ. 342:c5347. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5347.
  4. Deer B (2011). BMJ. 342:c5258. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5258.
  5. Deer B (2011). Secrets of the MMR scare. The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news. BMJ. 342:c7001. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c7001.
  6. Chadwick N, Bruce I, Davies M, van Gemen B, Schukkink R, Khan K, Pounder R, Wakefield AJ (1998). Virol Methods. 70(1):59-70.
  7. Chadwick N, Bruce IJ, Schepelmann S, Pounder RE, Wakefield AJ (1998). J Med Virol. 55(4):305-11.
  8. 8. Kawashima H, Mori T, Kashiwagi Y, Takekuma K, Hoshika A, Wakefield A (2000). Dig Dis Sci. 45(4):723-9.
  9. 9. Uhlmann V, Martin CM, Sheils O, Pilkington L, Silva I, Killalea A, Murch SB, Walker-Smith J, Thomson M, Wakefield AJ, O’Leary JJ (2002). Mol Pathol. 55(2):84-90.
  10. D’Souza Y, Dionne S, Seidman EG, Bitton A, Ward BJ (2007). Gut 56(6): 886-888.
  11. D’Souza Y, Eric Fombonne E, Ward BJ (2006). Pediatrics 118(4): 1664-1675.

Clones in space: Responses to the Dominion Post science column

At last year’s NZ Skeptics conference Bob Brockie reflected on his career as a newspaper columnist and explained why he has no future with the Mormon Church.

After spending most of my life as a scientist, at the age of 69 I became a weekly science columnist for the Dominion Post and Evening Post. I’ve written about 500 articles now and people ask where I get my stuff from. Mostly I get it from trawling through weekly scientific magazines, from the other side of the world. I like to bring the curious or obscure, gee-whiz stories to public attention.

The media is overrun by stories on climate change, pollution and conservation. I write about anything but those subjects. That’s not news to me; I report other things.

Alien DNA

In 2003 I wrote about an amazing group of people called the Raelians and their claim to have cloned a little girl called Eve. Rael is a French former sports-car journalist who claims he was abducted by little aliens, who told him that 40,000 years ago they came to Earth and produced these little Eve-like creatures. At any moment, the Raelians say, they will present their DNA to the scientific community.

I didn’t get any response from this article from local people, but I did get an invitation from the Australian chapter of the Rael-ians to attend their next gathering three hours north of Sydney, where a white robe would await me.

A pox on alternative practitioners

I often report on experiments to test alternative medicines of one kind or another. One I did was on a fellow who had chicken pox. The doctor told him there was nothing he could do for it, other than staying home and keeping away from people for 10 days. He was a bit of a skeptic and went along to some alternative practitioners. The first one told him his stomach was too acid and gave him some homeopathic water to drink. The second hooked him up to a contraption and told him he had been raped as a child. The third one said he had Ross River fever. They all charged from $50 to $100.

I’ve also written about experiments with acupuncture, which works just as well if you stick the needles in at random.

These pieces invariably attract writers defending the treatment and accusing me of having a closed mind. The disgruntled people usually argue that acupuncture, iridology or homeopathy worked for them or their husband or their wife, and that’s the end of it.

Cosmic energies down on the farm

Then there’s biodynamics. The stars and planets rain down astral energies, which are absorbed through cow’s horns buried in the ground. This radiates out and makes everything grow. The colour of roses is controlled by Venus, and the colour of cornflowers by Saturn. In the Wellington public library there are four copies of Rudolf Steiner’s book, published in the 1920s, and they’re out all the time. Steiner really was the father of organic farming, but the organic people get very angry at me when I point this out. I get an enormous response if I write about Steiner, not only from his followers, but also from organic farmers who think they are above this sort of thing.

Genetic Engineering: yesterday’s issue?

I’ve done three or four articles on genetic engineering over the years, reporting on various experiments. Living in New Zealand you’d think the entire GE field was being closed down, but in fact in all continents of the world it is spreading at a huge rate. The peasants in China and Africa who are producing genetically engineered crops find they don’t have to use so many pesticides. But when I wrote about this in 2001 I got a tremendous response from angry people who wanted to keep New Zealand GE-free. And two years later, the same thing happened. The next time I wrote about it there were not so many letters, and when I wrote a pro-GE article early in 2009 I didn’t receive a single letter. So things have gradually quietened down; GE is no longer the terrible thing that people perceived it to be.

The Mormon blacklist

Generally I try to keep off religion but occasionally I stray in that direction. I got into big trouble when I wrote about the Mormon Church. The Mormons claim that Jesus went to North America and converted the inhabitants to Christianity 2000 years ago. They also believe that the Red Indians are one of the tribes of Israel, although DNA studies show there’s no possible connection.

I wrote about that, but I also found that Joseph Smith, the founder, was a complete rascal and charlatan. He was expelled from the Methodist Church for dealing with necromancy, enchantments and believing in ghosts, and fined for being a disorderly person and impostor. At age 38 a mob of vigilantes enraged by Smith’s arrogance, monetary deals and promiscuity – he ran off with all the best looking girls in the congregation – shot him dead in an Illinois jail. The Mormons of course think he was a martyr to his cause. At any one time the Mormon church is building at least 200 churches around the world.

I thought this was worth reporting, because at the time there were some men on Norfolk Island in trouble with the law for playing up with the girls. I made the mistake of saying it was no wonder they were acting so strangely, because they were all Mormons up there. They were very quick to point out that they were in fact Seventh Day Adventists. I had to write a grovelling apology, but found that I’d been put on the Mormon blacklist. When I consulted the list to see who else was there I saw I was in very good company with all sorts of famous people, including Richard Dawkins. I’m afraid I’ve got no future with the Mormons.

The power of prayer

One of the biggest responses I got was when I wrote about unanswered prayers. America’s Templeton Foundation are very interested in the relationship between science and spirituality; they raised $2.5 million to finance an experiment in which several doctors chose 1800 patients who were due for bypass surgery. They then arranged for a team of people, a mix of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, to pray for half these patients anonymously.

They were alarmed to find that the ones they prayed for did worse than the ones who were not prayed for.

I also mentioned the famous study by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who wrote a book about the efficacy of prayer. He asked who gets prayed for most – Queen Victoria of course. She was prayed for every Sunday as were all the sovereign heads of Europe. His figures showed that, despite all the praying, sovereigns lived shorter lives than army officers, traders, merchants, doctors, and the gentry. And he famously concluded that the prayers therefore have no efficacy. Well. The letters still keep coming. I got letters saying that faith can’t be scientifically analysed, that God’s way of working is a mystery, and that science can’t determine the effects of prayer at all. Someone else said people of faith don’t need prayers to know that prayers work. One argued that some of the people having operations would have had extra prayers – they prayed for themselves. Other critics said they had used the wrong prayers, in the wrong language, that they didn’t pray hard enough, or that they didn’t adopt the best posture for saying prayers.

A local priest wrote to me twice, explaining in great detail that there are two sorts of prayers. There are petitionary prayers, where you beg God’s intercession, which hardly ever work, and adorational prayers, where you simply praise God. If you want to get results, he said, do this. Don’t ask for favours. It sounds as if the Muslims are on the right track; all you have to say is God is great. On the scientific evidence, if you’re in line for heart surgery, stop people praying for you.

Tourism on Ararat

In Auckland a couple of years ago two young men developed a system for making maps from satellite imagery. They’d been looking closely at Mt Ararat and some Americans were financing them to go there to see if they could find Noah’s Ark. The story in all the newspapers was all about these pioneers going to a really difficult place, breaking new ground, and how nobody had done this sort of work before. I pointed out that for 2000 years people had been going up Mt Ararat and there are hotels and a monastery up there. There’s a well-worn track; thousands of people go up and down all the time. A whole tourist industry has been developed there.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that no boat can accommodate 5000 species of mammals, 8700 birds, 30,000 worms, and two million insects. The column of beetles would be 240km long, and Noah and his family must have each carried 100 diseases from anthrax to syphilis. How Noah coped with food for the animals, the ventilation, the waste disposal, disembarkation on to a dead Earth, and how the platypus got from Mt Ararat to Australia are all very difficult to explain. A retired clergyman wrote me several, quite substantial letters as a result.

A letter from the Hamster

I’ve written one or two columns on the Creation Museum in Kentucky. In it are depictions of life in the Garden of Eden, and of a happy Adam and Eve, wandering around among the dinosaurs. I gather that 40 percent of Americans believe that humans and dinosaurs were on the Earth at the same time. I produced a column on the museum last year, which generated no response here, but someone at the museum itself must have read it. Ken Ham, the Australian who runs it, was upset. He replied, point by point, to all the mistakes I’d made. I had made one or two mistakes but they were trivial. I said he’d raised US$27 million to build it; he said he didn’t raise the money, a trust raised the money. I said he had a radio station and broadcast stuff around the world; he said he didn’t have a radio station, he just produced programmes. These are run by 287 other radio stations around the world. He wrote a letter to the editor of the paper and suggested I get the sack for my mistakes.

Filthy sex aids and the end of the world

I once wrote about the beginning of the world, and got an 11-page letter telling me when the world is going to end. The letter was from none other than God and his wife. They told me that the Earth would end shortly before January 31 in the year 5000. Owing to the mental and physical condition of humanity and filthy sex aids, mankind become unable to reproduce about then. There was lots of other advice as well, about divorce and the number 7777 and how the true church is the Salvation Army. Sadly, I couldn’t reply to God, because there was no forwarding address. I did notice it was sent from a post office down in Manners St, Wellington, however.

Scientific gossip

Why do I write this stuff? Well, $170 a week is very welcome, but I think that a vast amount of science goes unreported, and it gives me quite a buzz to bring news of this. I feel a bit like a postman, bringing news of developments and scientific gossip to the public. Also, there’s a sense of obligation to the public who paid for me to work as a scientist for most of my life. I feel a duty to let them know what they’re getting for their money. We’re floating around in a miasma of superstition, with people believing preposterous things with great intensity. I can’t help but challenge them in some way: ask them, how can you justify this, where do you get these ideas from?

I derive a lot of joy from writing these articles. It’s very different from writing for scientific journals. There you sweat blood and tears and produce a piece, which is then published years after you submitted it. Eighteen months later somebody in Mozambique or the Canary Islands asks for a reprint. With these newspaper articles I write it today and it’s published tomorrow. And people are on the phone or writing complaining letters the next day.

Spider’s reputation worse than its bite

Herald Sun, Australia – 21 July 2005

They have an evil reputation but white-tailed spiders might not be as bad as people fear. Popular myth is that the spider’s bite can cause a large ulcer or lesion and kill the surrounding tissue, but a study has blown the myth and the spider’s nasty reputation.

Dr Geoff Isbister, from Darwin’s Menzies School of Health Research, told an emergency medicine conference in New Zealand on 21 July that the spider’s bite does not cause necrotic ulcers. A recent study of 130 confirmed white-tailed spider bites found no cases of necrotic arachnidism – the death of skin and tissue after a spider bite. In a separate study of 750 spider bites in Australia, there were no cases of necrosis.

“The ubiquitous nature of the white-tailed spider, occurring in many homes in Australasia, meant they were blamed for ulcers based on weak circumstantial evidence – spiders often sighted only the day after the bite,” he said. “Suspected and unconfirmed case reports appeared in the medical literature, and despite good evidence, white-tailed spiders were believed to cause necrotic ulcers.” Dr Isbister said where necrotic ulcers did occur, further investigation in each case had found a different cause.

Currents of fear

Given his ratings, only a tiny handful of you probably saw Paul Holmes in his new slot on Prime a few weeks back, talking to Don Maisch, described as an Australian expert on the health effects of magnetic fields. More precisely, he’s doing a PhD in the Arts Faculty of Wollongong University on changes in the health status of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients following removal of excessive 50 Hz magnetic field exposure.

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“Mad Consumer Disease”: the response to BSE in the UK

Consumer response to the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy has involved a complex balancing of risk and price

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) has officially been recognised in the UK since 1986, a year after the first signs of disease amongst the UK herd. It was only in the 90s, though, that a link with the human illness, Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD) was investigated, leading to the famous announcement on 20 March 1996, by the health secretary in Parliament, that there was a ‘probable’ link between BSE in cattle and a new form of CJD, known as “new variant CJD”. This was the day that the floodgates opened. It has been described as Britain’s ‘most costly peace time catastrophe’, although that might have changed since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. I, fortunately, was working at the time as a dietitian in Health Promotion. My predecessor at the Meat and Livestock Commission, Amanda Wynne, was not so lucky.

Consumer reaction

That Government announcement precipitated an unprecedented response from both the media and consumers — the two obviously being inextricably linked. There was an immediate reduction in sales of some 30%, with consumers avoiding beef in its most obvious form, ie roasts and casseroles, but not meat products so much. This immediately gave a hint of consumers’ misunderstanding, as the incidence of BSE was much higher in dairy herds, from which meat products are more likely to be made, with prime cuts coming from beef cattle, which remained largely unaffected. There had also been a ban on the use of what are called ‘specified bovine offals’ since 1989, which included the spinal cord, thymus and brain, so it was likely that any possible transfer to humans occurred before this time. Stopping eating beef now was not really going to help.

At what price?

But what price are consumers willing to pay to reduce risk? Inevitably the price of beef plummeted shortly after the announcement in the Commons — one supermarket cut its prices by 50 %. The effect on consumers was dramatic — beef sales went through the roof! Some supermarkets saw a ten-fold increase in sales. There was suddenly a widespread acceptance of risk because it came at a bargain price. These are two examples of quotes that appeared in the press at the time: “There are still a lot of people who are buying beef and where it is reduced they are buying it in quite large quantities,” said a spokesman from Tesco. “I’m not all that confident, but it’s a good price and I’m willing to take the risk,” said one customer who bought half-price steaks. And well she might — the British Medical Association published figures at the time showing the risk of dying from CJD was 1 in 10 million (equal to being hit by lightning), compared to 1 in 8000 for a fatal road traffic accident or 1 in 200 for dying from smoking 10 cigarettes a day. I remember one person saying to me that they would buy the cheap beef and put it in the freezer until the scare was over!

There was clearly a point at which people were willing to trade perceived risk for cheaper food. It has been paralleled with the effect on the air industry following the September 11 disaster. In the month following, British Airways saw its passenger numbers to America fall by 32%. In contrast, the budget airlines have seen their trade boom. Admittedly, most of those airlines in the UK do not fly to America and you could argue terrorists are more likely to target the big carriers flying out of New York or Heathrow, than those flying to Tenerife from a minor UK airport like Luton or Stanstead. But people are remarkably consistent in the way they balance risk with price — consider your own behaviour regarding smoke alarms, bike helmets or your car tyres.

This has also been highlighted recently during the GE debate. Actually buying organic produce in a supermarket for example, does not always reflect reported behaviour.

Beef sales

Despite these quirks of human nature, beef consumption did drop overall during 1996, and it was hardly surprising that some people were anxious about eating beef when on a Friday the Government said it would give guidance on feeding children beef, but not until the following Monday! There was a considerable reduction in the consumption of beef from March 1996; this was not entirely due to a reduction in household consumption. Two hundred and three out of 204 local councils banned beef from their menus in March 1996, which most notably included schools, but also social services. Interestingly, a similar reaction has been seen in France in 2000, after a confirmed case of vCJD (though not their first), with beef being taken off all school menus and beef sales falling by 20-50%.

The response since

Since 1996, consumer confidence in British beef has increased dramatically. Continuing with the analogy of the air industry, it is said to be safest to fly the day after a plane crash — I think that is true in NZ too. Britain has had to examine its procedures in tremendous detail, and consumers are recognising the changes that have been made, and are keen to buy a product in which they now have confidence. Beef sales are not only back up, but exceeding pre-BSE levels. A Mori poll in 1999, of perceived “threats to health”, showed the fear of BSE at the bottom of the list, well below the major killers of cancer and heart disease.

Having been one of the first fast food chains that stopped using British beef in 1996, McDonalds threw its weight behind an industry initiative in 1998, aiming to increase consumption of the British product. Following the launch of this “Buy British” campaign, two thirds of those surveyed preferred to buy meat produced in the UK, 40 % ranking it “very important”.

But in October 1998, 170 local authority bans still remained in place. This triggered a high-profile campaign by the industry, enlisting the support of Government, the Food Standards Agency and a well-respected scientist, Hugh Pennington. This was required to counter the “well, you would tell us it’s safe, wouldn’t you” sort of reaction. Within a month, 56 local authorities had lifted their bans, and within six months only three remained. Today, just two bans remain, plus a couple in primary schools. The key issue in terms of returning to beef was traceability, even outweighing price — though only just. Consumers needed reassurance, focused on identified consumer concerns. Several quality assurance schemes were introduced throughout the food chain, most notably one for mince, introduced quite soon after the crisis began. It was a rosette developed for use on mince, stating that the product did not contain offal, and was made from cattle less than 30 months of age. Consumers had become concerned about the quality of mince, and this quality mark worked well to reassure them. It was later extended to burgers as well. Consumers in the UK are as responsive to stickers on packs as they are here. Even if they don’t fully understand what they mean, it is a symbol of quality. Food safety is still a major concern for consumers in the UK — highlighted by the latest consumer attitudes survey, carried out by the Food Standards Agency — but it is broader than just BSE. Unsurprisingly, food poisoning is of greatest concern in Scotland, reflecting the site of the E. coli outbreak, also in 1996, in which 20 elderly people died. But over 90 per cent of those surveyed eat meat on a regular basis, with true vegetarianism still below 5% of the population.

Reaction in NZ?

So how did consumers react here at home? It appears to have been perceived very much as an overseas problem, and if anything helped our product. The fact that NZ is BSE-free reinforced consumers’ confidence in the NZ product and the meat production systems employed here, ie grass-based and extensive. What of the farmers?

In conclusion, I would ask you to spare a thought for the farmers. By March 2001 there had been 95 cases of vCJD in Britain. And whilst no one would deny it is a hideous illness, compare this to the number of suicides amongst farmers and the figures pale dramatically. In 1999, there was more than one suicide a week amongst farmers, totalling 400 over the last few years. This, as far as I know, never made the headlines.


Grateful thanks go to former colleagues at the Meat and Livestock Commission for supplying information for this paper, in particular Chris Lamb, consumer marketing manager and Tony Goodger, trade sector manager.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand 27, 97-99.