London,Apr 3, 1998
Thespectacle of scientists, doctors and vets filing in before the BSE inquiry isnot as bizarre as you might expect. Nor is the cool disdain shown by the virologists,neurologists and epidemiologists for the vets a product of BSE. Its roots areas old as the dairy industry. As for the morose looks on the faces of the vets,these are just as likely to mask incredulity at gross revisionism as they aredark secrets. Vets are among the few of us still taught that it was the dairyindustry that gave rise to much of modern science, medicine and government.
Weeach drink, on average, three to four pints of milk a week. It was not alwaysthus. Before the 1860s milk was largely sold as hard cheese, and for goodreason. In 1845 a microscropist published the pamphlet Observations on LondonMilk, showing that it was hard to find samples of milk free from traces ofblood or pus. This was probably true. The milk came from town dairies, locatedin sheds or even cellars, where cows spent their working lives standing intheir excrement and facing troughs of turnips and brewer's grain. Two years laterthe Lancet linked contaminated milk from town dairies with tuberculosis inpeople. The situation was the same, or worse, in other British cities. In 1895,for example, there were 73 town dairies in Newcastle. Tests there as late as1931 showed 10 per cent infection in milk.
By1860, as a result of Lancet investigations, the first British Food and Drugs Actwas passed. The same year a pleuropneumonia epidemic killed 187,000 cattle. Threeyears later, rinderpest (known as "the plague") arrived in Britain ona Russian cattle boat, and from 1865-67 it killed an estimated 500,000 cattle. Thiswas the death blow to town dairies and led, several decades later, to the openingof the Central Veterinary Laboratory near Weybridge, Surrey. The governmentalso re-established the Board of Agriculture, later the Ministry of Agriculture.
By1866 two million gallons of milk a year was being carried into London by rail,and in 1869 Sainsbury's started as a small dairy in Drury Lane. Still, only athird of milk was sold as fresh liquid. By 1890 pasteurisation began to reducemilk-borne disease. Made safer to consume, it was suddenly being promoted byscientists and medics who had previously denounced it. In 1880 the BritishAssociation for the Advancement of Science calculated that the average workingman consumed only half an ounce of butter or cheese a day. Recruitment for theBoer war pointed up shocking levels of physical disability among young men. TheMedical Research Committee was formed in 1913, and in 1916 it pinpointedvitamin deficiencies, particularly from vitamin D, which is found in milk. Thenext year it reported that 50 per cent of children in towns had rickets.
Bythe turn of the century Britain's cattle industry had started to specialize indairy production, with the first national cattle census counting seven millionhead. The National Farmers' Union was formed in 1904 during the dairy surge. By1931 the health minister, Arthur Greenwood, had set minimum daily requirementsfor nutrition, including a pint of milk and an ounce of butter a day. Yet asthe industry swelled, prices fell and farmers averted collapse only by formingthe Milk Marketing Board, which set a uniform price for milk.
By1970 average consumption was five pints a week and the national herd was 12.5million, where the numbers have hovered ever since.
Nextweek: Antibiotics and All That.
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