We madly hope they are right

“Bovine spongiform encephalopathy will have disappeared from Britain’s herds within four years without any need for massive slaughtering of animals, claims an international report published yesterday in the journal Nature by researchers from Oxford. [...] The epidemic is in its terminal phase and the number of cases will be ‘insignificant’ by 2001”. Reassured, at last ?

According to these epidemiologists, “close to one million infected animals were consumed before 1989, at which time a ban was placed on the sale of that organ meat most likely to transmit the disease” (Libération, a national daily paper, August 30, 1996). On the previous day the same paper had published other figures, communicated by Reuters : “Nevertheless, the large number of sick animals consumed gives good reason for concern. There were some 903,000 mad cows between 1974 and 1995, 446,000 of which were consumed before 1989 and 283,000 others consumed before the stricter restrictions were adopted last December”. 446,000 + 283,000 = 729,000. There is a deficit of 903,000 – 729,000 = 174,000 cows. Are you following me ? Were they eaten ? If so, they must have been eaten on New Year’s eve, December 31, 1995, to be counted in one instance and not in the other. This is the famous problem of the borders, in statistics. By the way, there is no mention of whether the cows were consumed locally or “taken out” to the continent.

This vagueness when counting mad cows reminds me of a wonderful cartoon by Plantu1 , about the latest population count in China. It shows a census-taker in front of a huge crowd, in the process of counting people : “Someone moved ! I have to start over”. I realize there’s something incongruous about the comparison. Sorry about that.

Victor Descombres
November 1996

1. A famous French cartoonist.

Penumbra, 2001 June