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Mad Cow Disease (BSE), Tainted Milk in China... - a sociological perspective of food scares

Updated on August 7, 2011

In the industrial food system today, the consumer is disconnected from the food producers. This estrangement is not typically apparent to the consumer; ignorant of the processes that occur before food reaches them, this relationship with the producers is often invisible and intangible, until consumers find their trust breached through a food scare crisis.

The industrial revolution transformed the production of food with the use of advanced technology and scientific methods for food production. This mass production of food allows the mass consumption of the workers to fuel mass production of industrial society. The nature of this consumption has freed the consumer from the work of food production, and the use of scientific methods has now given the consumer access to foods that used to be subject to seasonal availability. Yet, this has also alienated the consumer from the producer, creating feelings of distrust that are exacerbated through incidences of food scares.


Food scares are riddled throughout history, with the industrialization of food in the 1800s increasing these incidences. With the profit oriented mindset of the food producers and distributors who can be regarded as the food capitalist who own the means of food production, food is commoditized and each step from the farmer to the consumer’s stomach is a mercenary commercial transaction involving many parties. Also, the growth of densely populated urbanized areas dramatically increases the risk of food adulteration during the process of transportation and packaging, particularly in highly perishable foods.

This has led to alternative food systems emerging to decrease the consumer-producer gap and to combat the ills of the industrial food system. Some examples include farmers markets, the slow food movement and a growing preference for ‘health foods.’

The Mad Cow disease was a watershed event in the history of food scares, a symbol of the failure of our food regulations. Another recent example is the melamine milk scandal, whose magnitude qualifies it as the Asian equivalent of the mad cow disease. Using the mad cow disease and the recent tainted melamine milk scandal, we explore the interactions between food consumers, producers and governments during food crisis to see if this alienation is really the culprit behind the food scares, which is also the driving force towards the slow food movement and the alternate food systems like health foods.


Mad cow disease and the Tainted Milk Scandal

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is the scientific term of mad cow disease. UK government only officially acknowledged the dangers of BSE in November 1986 despite rumors that had been brewing before. The practice of feeding animals remains to livestock is not novel; animal parts such as the brains that are banned from human consumption are reconstituted into animal feed to save costs. The difference, scientist speculate, is that BSE was transmitted through new preparation methods which made it possible for the infectious agents to survive (Journeyman, 2007), thus infecting cows that consumed it, and later humans too in the form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). This link from BSE to CJD was contentious - CJD had been in existence worldwide in the human population, but the number of cases in the UK rose alongside the increasing instances of BSE in cows. Many independent studies carried out had similar results; scientists rang the alarm bells early to warning the public of the potential dangers. But the government only admitted a possible link between BSE and CJD in March 1996, (the second wave of the BSE scare), delaying this announcement on the grounds of inconclusive evidence. This damage to UK’s enormous beef export industry has widespread international consequences, some of which are still undetermined, as CJD has a long gestation period of 30 years.

In September 2008, the Chinese government recalled 700 tons of infant feed produced before August 6 2008. Over 53 000 babies in China were hospitalized and 4 deaths resulted due to kidney complications. Unusually high amounts of melamine were found in milk of Sanlu Group, China’s milk giant. Investigations revealed that 2 brothers (milk collectors) added the chemical melamine into milk; this was done to artificially increase the protein levels in milk to reach acceptable levels, before selling their milk to Sanlu. Although it takes a substantial amount of melamine to damage the kidneys, international impact still unfolds especially as countries discover more and more of their food products contain the tainted milk imported from China as an ingredient. 

The Consumer’s Reaction

‘It’s a case of Greed’

When asked about the mad cow disease, interviewees, Singaporeans in their 20s to 60s, felt that irrational greed led these farmers to force their cows (born as herbivores) to be carnivores. They wanted to save cost by feeding their cows leftover remains, to fatten up them even faster, so profit margins would increase when meat sales went up. This greed caused them to disregard the consequences for the animals’ health, and public health. This reasoning mirrors sentiments toward the milk scandal – that melamine was added out of greed, despite knowing that their milk was of too low quality to be sold to companies.

When consumers are distanced from food producers, there is less mutual accountability.  Producers more easily find themselves in morally compromising situations where they can get away with ‘little sins’ and production shortcuts to pocket extra cents. It often takes these shortcuts to go horribly wrong before they are discovered; by that time many have taken ill by what could have been a preventable case of food adulteration.

‘I don’t know what I’m really eating anymore’

Consumers expect their food to be pure and natural, not poisoned or genetically modified. While it is an open secret that food production methods commonly use pesticides, hormones, antibiotics… during the different stages, this information neither openly nor readily broadcast to the public. During the BSE crisis, sales at the local butchers soared as customers trusted the source of this beef much more than supermarkets such as Tesco (Caplan, 2000).

When consumers learn that a particular food is contaminated, they start to doubt not only that food, but also other foods that are similarly association with it. The consumer’s lack of knowledge initially blinds them from the reality of what they may be consuming; their ignorance also acting like a protective bubble covering the producer. When this bubble finally pops consumers suddenly recognize the risk involved and take action to lower it.


‘It’s getting harder to trust science and technology’

This leads to the issue of consumers not just distrusting their food sources but the technology behind it. The use of machinery and science in food production is very rampant in industrial production to cut costs and replace human labor with more efficient machinery. During the BSE crisis, newspapers like Independent ran articles such as ‘Once the men in white coats held the promise of a better future: why have we lost our trust in them?’ (Independent, 1996), and ‘Nature bites back: we will pay an even higher price for technological hubris unless we mend our ways’ (Guardian, 1996), explaining “why BSE epitomized all that was wrong with the modern farming methods.”

Interviewees voluntarily criticized our blindness and overly dependence on science to give us solutions. Referring to the melamine scandal, one interviewee summed it up when she said “we think we are so advanced, can add chemicals to increase protein, but actually (we) create more trouble for ourselves…think lots of food aren’t so safe.” Indeed while acknowledging how science has increased our efficiency and crop output, people are clearly beginning to feel the dangers and impact of the ruthless ways humans foolishly yield power over nature in the name of science. Especially when food is in question, risky scientific tests on substances like animal feed, pesticides or fertilizers are often not confined to the laboratory long enough to determine their harmfulness to public health. Often the promise of quick profits and the absence of sufficient food regulation result in compromised food safety standards.

It is ironic how the problems caused by science and technology are often solved by newer science and technology. With the ownership of food-related scientific technology and knowledge belonging to a few, the layperson not only lacks access to change but is also deskilled by the industrialization process. Again, such behavior can be traced to the alienation of the consumer from producer, leaving the consumer starved in resource and knowledge, while the capitalists to generate the most profits meanwhile. 

‘There’s moral decay taking place’

Someone made an interesting comment, attributing China’s milk scandal to the “moral and ethic vacuum left due to the Cultural Revolution by the atheistic communist government in the 50s- 70s”. Perhaps when there are no moral and ethical guiding principles to moderate a person’s behavior, the profit-making obsession of the capitalist is pursued to a point that crosses over the ethical boundaries, posing risk to public health, and in the milk safety scandal, thousands of innocent babies suffered. If left unchecked, this could spiral downhill, further widening the consumer-producer gap, corrupting the producers’ conscience, resulting in more unrestraint behavior.

The Government’s Response

Domestic Management of the Scares – starting at home

The reaction of the UK government gave away their intentions to preserve economic and political interests above public health and safety. Much vital information was withheld from the public, especially that about the BSE and CJD link. Also, the government provided little funds to researchers (some ended up supporting their research from their own pockets) who did not align themselves with political agenda. Dr Harash Narang is a prime example of a scientist dismissed from his job for publishing news that he discovered that the BSE was a super strain in his research – a finding that jeopardized the country’s beef industry and the government’s credibility. In fact, the government discourse surrounding BSE likens BSE to scrapies, the sheep version of BSE (Gibbs, 1997). This milder discourse would allay public fears and preserve the beef industry.

Many people are appalled with the Chinese government for concealing the milk scandal for months to bask in their Olympic glory – by that time there were already 4 infant deaths. During the Olympics, thousands of tourists went to China, many of them from European and Western countries that feature milk as integral parts of their diet. To them, announcing the scandal before the Olympics would have badly affected their tourism and discredited the favorable image they were hoping to impress the world with.

Both incidents show food politics at play, and the exploitation of consumers through the disjoint between the consumer and the food producers – consumers are unaware of what happens during the packaging, processing of food and this ignorance provides an avenue for the governments to exert control over this knowledge, often shirking responsibility to the people and selectively reporting only information that propel their political agenda.

It’s an international affair

Today BSE has killed thousands of cows, and other animals (even domestic pets that consumed infected pet food). Internationally, BSE has also been found in cows in other countries. In September 2008, New Scientist ran an article about a new more vicious form of BSE found in Italy called bovine amyloidic spongiform encephalopathy (BASE), which might already be present in humans (Coghlan, 2008). However, the odds of human death are slim, as the most infectious parts of the cow (such as the brain and spinal cord) remain banned for human consumption. Interestingly, this was the same argument used to defend Britain’s beef as safe for consumption before the CJD link was announced.

China is one of the world’s largest exporters of foods and ingredients, and inquiry following the milk scandal has revealed traces of unusually high amounts of melamine leached into eggs and animal feed, prompting Hong Kong to tests foods such as vegetables and meats for melamine (“Fears on Animal Feed Widen China’s Food Inquiry”, 2008).

This exposes the complex food web that countries are entangled in when it comes to food production, distribution and consumption. Countries often concentrate on exporting foods which are available abundantly and import what they lack. This is a lucrative exchange as countries would sell at the highest price and buy at the lowest possible in order to reap highest profits. Although the government may not necessarily own the farms or production means, they work closely with the food capitalist who contribute vastly to the country’s economic well-being. Besides, this exchange of food is also symbolic of international political and economic ties, mutual cooperation and interdependence that exist between the countries involved. Both the UK government and the Chinese government fought hard to preserve their countries reputation, so as not to damage the export industries that would jeopardize the major streams of cash inflow into their countries, leading to the erosion of other faucets of their international relations. This shows what happens when food becomes commoditized in the industrial food system - it loses some of its ‘feeding’ properties as more symbolic meanings of political and economic nature are imbued into it, and often producers and governments treat foods with these perspectives; neglecting the health and nourishing aspects these foods possess, which more often than naught make more impact of the daily lives of the common people.

Media - friend or foe?

It is interesting how the media coverage in both scares differed. Many interviewees expressed anger with the media portrayal of China’s President Hu Jintao amicably shaking hands with mothers, visiting hospitals, cradling sick babies… knowing very well that he was part of the conspiracy to withhold the tainted milk information from the public. While in the UK, although the media did try to soften the impact of BSE and encourage people to eat beef again, there was more liberty and broader space – allowing the local district newspapers to sympathize with the farmers and the national press to run stories to comment on political failure and the wider implications on the scientific and international community.

While reporters in some countries have more freedom than others, the media generally works in partnership with the government to educate the consumer during times of crisis. This censorship of the government may work against or for the government’s agenda. In places like especially in China where there is stringent censorship and control over their coverage consumers, people don't trust what they see (on TV) or read (in news) entirely. This is in stark contrast to other countries who said they could “trust the government”, as it was the government's job.Perhaps this boils down to the same point of knowledge – whether the viewer can trust their sources of information.

The Producers

Drawing a distinction between the dairy cows and eating cows

To save their businesses, many food producers supported the argument that most of the infected BSE cows were dairy cows, not those reared for meat (eating cows). Dairy cows typically contracted BSE around a certain age and were killed for ‘cheap beef’ products, but eating cows were safe as they were slaughtered within that ‘vulnerable age’, thus lowering their chances of contracting BSE. Many gourmet restaurants like Simpsons built their menus around beef dishes, and pushed this argument to assure that the beef served in their restaurants were safe for consumption. However, what was suppressed was that the ‘cheap beef’ was being served primarily in schools (Journeyman, 2007). This is shocking, considering how society normally regards children as helpless and needing protection as they cannot fight for their own rights. Again we see how the producers in the industrial food system brutally defend their businesses, profiting through ill-informing the poor unsuspecting consumer.

The long suffering farmer – a case of alienation too?

The farmer is one who supplies the distributors and factories with the raw material – be it meat of vegetables. Lest we assume that they are wealthy, the reality is that in the UK, the farmers receive a meager sum of money for each animal. Coupled with the high running farm costs and the BSE crisis, more farmers not only hold outside jobs as they find it hard to sustain a livelihood from farming alone (Journeyman, 2007) but they have become the occupation with the highest suicide rates (Caplan, 2000). In the case of the milk scandal, it was the milk collectors who added melamine into the milk, not the farmers whom they obtained the milk from.

Most of this essay talks about the consumer being at a losing end due to their distancing from the food producers. Here I offer that perhaps farmers find themselves in positions of alienation. This farmer refers not so to the big scale corporations like Tyson chicken, but the ordinary farmer, whose job is slowly being taken away from him by bigger companies that have undergone vertical and horizontal integration.

Often the food originally sold by the farmers end up in markets where the price is jacked up manifold. It is ironic how the even the farmer goes to the market to purchase his own produce for his family to eat. Here, the middleman gets profits, while the farmer is exploited. Like the consumer, he is not in a position of ownership of means or knowledge and hence suffers a similar kind of helplessness.

‘Saying Goodbye to the industrial food system, and hello to alternatives?’

It is interesting to note how the emergence of alternate food systems like health foods and organic foods might just be a double-edged sword; while consumers now have access to healthier foods, this could be the guise of the capitalist. Perhaps while we think that such foods emerge to compensate the failure of the industrial food system, these food innovations appear in the markets as capitalist craft their advertisements to appeal to the frightened consumer. Markets for these foods not only manipulate consumer’s anxiety, but also work to generate even more profit for the producers, as these health foods are often exorbitantly priced as consumers pay for their supposed quality and health benefits.


Both the mad cow disease and the tainted milk scandals have international repercussions, political, economic and social stories that share an uncanny resemblance.  As we have explored the government, producers and consumers’ reactions, we observe how in this aspect of food fears that is riddled with events since the industrialization of food- history continually repeats itself.

The rise of the industrialized food system has concentrated much of the food production processes into the hands of a few, whom we can consider as the food capitalist. This has resulted in the alienation of the consumer from the producer, allowing for the emergences of many food scares throughout history, which has lead to the trend towards alternate food systems. Though we might regard these new food innovations as alternatives to the industrial system, they are actually still functioning under the capitalist food producers who capitalize on consumers fears during such food scares to create markets for their products, which in fact result in greater growth and profiting of their industry.

So we see the consumer in a helpless position, continually subject to the control and exploitative means of the of the food capitalists. Interestingly, this powerlessness may not be apparent to the consumer himself; often consumers possess insufficient knowledge to discern the interactions of the industrial food system where the capitalist continually strive to profit.

As a result, we observe how this disconnection between the consumer and producer is a gap that keeps widening. We can expect, since the history of industrialization, that the incidences of food scares will continue to arise. And we should not be surprised when these incidences are managed in ways that do not protect the consumer – for the government, media and capitalist have intimate relationships that are largely political and economic in nature; naturally, this capitalist agenda take precedence well above that of the consumer’s welfare.


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    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      Excellent article, Charlotte and so important! Good grief...who can we trust? Rated up!