By Cho Jin-seo
Scientists have begun to speak out about the exaggerated fears of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), being widely spread especially among young people.
Bio scientists, veterinarians and medical doctors criticized the sensationalism of the media and the anti-American beef demonstrators in a series of press conferences held by various science institutions including the Korean Academy of Science and Technology (KAST), the Korea Institution of Science and Technology (KIST), and the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies (KOFST).
Researchers speak in unison when they say that there can be undetected danger in beef produced in America or elsewhere. But most of them stress that the risk of human infection from mad cow disease is statistically very weak, much lower than other health and environmental issues, such as avian influenza.
``Every substance is toxic to some degree. Whether a substance becomes a problem for human health depends on the quantity of the toxic elements,'' said Ryu Jae-cheon, a toxicology researcher at KIST. He is also the vice president of the Korean Society of Environmental Toxicology (KSET).
``I think it is worrisome that there has been too big a fuss over an issue that has a very low infection rate.''
Lee Mun-han, professor of Seoul National University and chairman of the Korean Society of Veterinary Science (KSVS), agrees that public attention should be diverted to more urgent health issues such as bird flu.
``There are continual outbreaks of avian influenza, but the issue is overshadowed by the mad cow disease controversy,'' he said.
Citizens including schoolchildren have been rallying on the street of Seoul every day since last week to protest the government's decision to import U.S. beef. Worries rose that Koreans could be exposed to a fatal brain disease called viariant Creutzheldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), which is linked to BSE, because Korean cuisine includes cow bones and intestines that are believed to have a higher concentration of prions, which cause the disease, and as such are labeled specific risk materials (SRMs).
Rumors spread that the mad cow disease can be transmitted through not only food but also cosmetics and diapers that contain gelatin made of cow bones and skins. Protestors also worried that retailers will import American cows older than 30 months, which are thought to be more prone to the disease and are therefore not consumed by Americans themselves.
Adding fuel to fire, local broadcaster MBC reported that Koreans are genetically more vulnerable to vCJD than Westerners by citing research from Kim Yong-sun, a professor of medicine at Hallym University. Kim, who was attending an academic conference in Finland at the time of the broadcast, denied the MBC allegations saying it was premature to draw any conclusion and that his paper had been manipulated by the broadcaster.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has been stating that the U.S. beef to be imported is completely safe. Some pro-America politicians even said that Korean dog meat is much more dangerous than the beef, because the former has no quarantine process. Others compared the possibility of catching vCJD from eating U.S. beef to that of lightning striking a golfer right after he scores a hole-in-one.
Scientists say the beliefs are another form of urban legend and there are no statistics to support such a hypothesis. Kim Sang-yoon, a professor of neurology at Seoul National University, said the real problem is that South Korea does not have proper quarantine and medical checkup systems that can identify vCJD among patients and trace its link to mad cow disease.
``Many doctors are worrying about a second peak,'' he said, referring the massive outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s in Britain as the first peak. ``We suspect that it is transforming to other undetected forms of disease, other than vCJD.''