Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

The Mad Cow Crisis: Health and the Public Good

Scott C. Ratzan
UCL Press: London
1 85728 812 2
£14.95 (pb)
xii + 250 pp.

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Moral Panics

Kenneth Thompson
Routledge: London
0 415 11977 4
£10.99 (pb)
x + 160 pp.

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Recent years have witnessed recurrent scares over public health issues. AIDS, Listeria, salmonella, flesh-eating bugs, resistant strains of pathogens, potential epidemics of 'killer' viruses - these and other threats have provoked repeated crises of public confidence, together with high-profile coverage by the mass media, pronouncements by experts, and interventions by politicians. There is nothing inherently novel about such episodes of crisis and fear. Periodic epidemics of infectious diseases - such as cholera - in nineteenth century cities gave rise not only to sober sanitary reforms, but also fears about the 'sickening' working classes. The same was true of Victorian responses to the prevalence of venereal diseases - reflected in the notorious Contagious Diseases Acts. The physical and the moral were intertwined in fears for social disorder as well as physical decline. The social fabric and the physical body have frequently stood in metaphorical and metonymic relations to one another in the discourses of threat and response. Not all of these concerns have received the same degree of attention by social scientists. It is my clear recollection that when I was young, the cumulative effects of nuclear testing and fall-out were believed to be building up radioactive Strontium 90 in our bones (to say nothing of popular beliefs that atmospheric testing was changing the weather). What happened to that particular fear?

Recent epidemics and scares have, of course, been especially harrowing. The effects of BSE on affected cows have been unpleasant enough, while the effects of CJD and Variant-CJD on human victims are undoubtedly distressing. They are genuinely tragic, in being the unintended consequences of human action: we are, collectively, the victims of our own ingenuity. The connotations of 'cannibalism' on the part of domestic cattle, the gothic horrors of trans-species transmission, the gruesome images of iatrogenic CJD (produced by injections of pituitary extract from cadavers) - these all contribute to the horrors of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The fact that they occur in multiple species - not only scrapie in sheep and BSE in cattle, but equivalent strains in mink, deer and elk - adds to the generalised horror.

BSE and CJD have all the characteristics to inspire panic. Although their common origin as a prion disease is widely accepted, much else remains obscure - mechanisms of inter- generational transmission; the incubation time of V-CJD; the long-term consequences for human populations - adding to the generalised uncertainty of public and scientific opinion. The origins in non-human species, the consequences of 'unnatural' animal husbandry, the murky role of commercial interests and political expediency, and the function of experts - these are among the recurrent ingredients of public fear, in BSE and other similar health crises. The locus of fear and blame is a dangerous 'other' - monkeys or cattle, gays or Africans, deviants and the underclass. The infectious spread threatens innocent victims - recipients of medically administered agents, healthy children and young adults, blameless members of the respectable working-class and middle- class populations.

The Mad Cow Crisis is not a sociological analysis of the 'crisis'. It is, however, a useful resource for researchers and students who need background information in order to generate such perspectives. It is a collection of fifteen chapters on key aspects of the BSE affair: on the medical and veterinary background, the politics and public health of BSE, media coverage and the rhetoric of representations. The chapters themselves are fairly short and schematic, providing a brief overview rather than detailed analyses of social problems and their construction. Joan Leach's account of 'the rhetorical life of mad cow disease' deserves attention, drawing as it does on Susan Sontag, Mary Douglas, Dorothy Nelkin and Harry Collins. A longer, more detailed and more subtle account of narrative and metaphor in this context could and should be written.

The BSE crisis and equivalent panics might have featured in Ken Thompson's introductory textbook on Moral Panics. They do not. Of the recent public health scares, only AIDS features. For the most part Thompson sticks to tried and trusted examples, and this is very much a review of the standard literature. It is even organised in terms of chapters dealing with normal syllabus materials - a chapter on Stan Cohen followed by a chapter on the Birmingham CCCS contributions, for instance. This book will relieve students - their teachers too, perhaps - of the burden of reading the original sources, while making no original contribution in its own right. It is strong on some aspects of mass media, but weak on the analysis of narrative, metaphors and other representations. This is a text for teachers, not for researchers.

Paul Atkinson
Cardiff University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998