Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Farmer Mark Purdey with his organic herd
Mark Purdey with his organic herd. Photo: Simon Chapman

Mad Cow Cover Up

An organic farmer from Somerset has gathered convincing evidence to suggest that the outbreak of BSE in the UK was a direct result of a commercial pesticide. Si Mitchell talks to a man who despite being shot at and having his house burnt down, persists in attempts to expose the commercial cover-up.


Whoever the monkeys have been at the top of the tree, the Party line has remained the same. The official line of course is that Mad Cow Disease (BSE) came about because scrapie-infected sheep meat and bone meal was fed to cows. But one West Country farmer has a different theory. One that the authorities and the pesticide producers have gone to great to lengths to silence.

Since 1982 British farmers have been forced by law to treat their cows for warble fly with a pour-on systemic organophosphate called Phosmet - originally formulated as a weapon by nazi chemists during World War II. The suits were soon to realise its profit potential and after the war Phosmet was exclusively marketed as an agricultural pesticide by ICI, and later by their renamed subdivision, Zeneca.

Observing how his own organically reared cows never developed BSE, but Phosmet-treated cattle brought onto the farm did, Somerset farmer Mark Purdey refused to treat his herd. In 1984 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and food (MAFF) took him to the High Court to force him to use Phosmet, but a judicial review found in his favour ruling that the government couldn't enforce treatment as the chemical was neither a vaccine or serum. "Before 1982 farmers could treat warbles with an organic ground-up root compound called derris. This was outlawed, so they could sell more organophosphates," Purdey told SQUALL. "You can pick warbles out by hand, they don't really harm the cows, just make skin holes which the leather industry don't like."

Organophosphates (OP), used to treat headlice in school children, have been identified as one potential cause of Gulf War Syndrome (Purdey managed to allieviate symptoms in a BSE infected cow by injecting oxime, an antidote to pesticide poisoning. The cure was never completed as MAFF turned up and destroyed the cow). Phosmet also contains phthalimide, chemically related to thalidomide, a morning sickness drug which caused severe birth defects in the 1960s.

Unconvinced by the officially-given cause of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSEs - the type of brain disease which includes BSE and CJD as well as Scrapie in sheep), Purdey set about studying the epidemiology of these diseases and how its clustering reflected OP usage.

He found that the UK, the only country which enforced Phosmet use, had the highest rate of TSEs. Ireland had some BSE, but OP use was both voluntary and given at a lower dose (6mg/kg annually, compared to the UK's twice yearly 20mg/kg - British Phosmet is also produced at a higher initial concentrate). Brittany began to develop BSE following an enforced Phosmet trial, after which the disease began to appear across France, again reflecting the geographical spread of OP use. Purdey also found a cluster of people infected with nvCJD in the Wield Valley in Kent, where hop and top fruit growth attracted hundred-fold levels of systemic OP spraying.


In contrast, meat and bone meal feed is peddled all over the world, including the middle east where there hasn't been a single case of Mad Cow Disease. In the US, scientists have been force-feeding scrapie infected gunk to cows for years without managing to give them BSE. So the official line was looking shakey in the face of mounting evidence. Agitated by Purdey's discoveries, the pesticide industry hit back. The dubiously named National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), a lobby group representing the UK animal medicine industry (whose membership reads like a White House dinner party invite list and includes Bayer, Monsanto, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, Schering-Plough, Intervet etc), published documents discrediting Purdey's work.

In a briefing paper to Lord Philips' BSE inquiry - due to publish its report on March 31- NOAH said Purdey's facts "do not add up". They said: "Many independent experts [have said] a relationship between OPs and BSE does not exist." To back up their refutation NOAH claimed that warble treatment had taken place in Jersey but not Guernsey, yet the incidence of BSE was five times higher in Guernsey than in Jersey. They wrote to science editors explaining that Phosmet was licensed in New Zealand and Australia, yet no cases of BSE had occurred there.

Purdey dismisses their argument: "They twist the facts. Phosmet was used in Guernsey, but as a lice treatment. And the stuff used in Australia and NZ was non-systemic (ie it doesn't penetrate the skin and subsequently every organ), as it was dissolved in water, not oil as in Britain."

NOAH's independent expert, Dr David Ray, turned out to be receiving funding from Zeneca for his Medical Research Council toxicology unit. "I don't think this affected my judgement," says Ray. "You may not believe it, but I didn't realise Zeneca produced Phosmet at the time." Ray chose not to test with Phosmet, but with another organophosphate called DFP. He also used synthetic brain proteins, which Purdey believes would have reacted differently to their natural counterparts.

In March 1996 - one week before the UK government admitted to a link between BSE and nvCJD - Zeneca 'sold' the Phosmet patent to a previously unheard of PO Box company in the Arizona desert called Gowans. As Ray says: "Zeneca are not keen to be sued."


In her submission to the BSE inquiry, dairy farmer Joanna Wheatley says: "The initial epidemiological study carried out in 1988 which identified meat and bonemeal as the cause of BSE was flawed. It recorded 68 per cent of farms affected by the disease had not used chemicals or weed killers. This could not possibly be the case." Wheatley points out that OP treatment was enforced on all farms and organic farming was both rare and viewed with suspicion by the majority of farmers in the 1980s.

Taking his research overseas Purdey discovered clusters of CJD downwind of large ferromanganese and glass factories in Slovakia; around a missile production plant in Tucson; and around the scene of the Seveso disaster in Milan - where a pesticide factory exploded in 1976. Similar scrapie clusters appeared in sheep in certain volcanic areas of Iceland. Soil, water and plant samples in all these areas showed high levels of manganese and low levels of copper.

Intrigued by Purdey's findings, a Cambridge university chemist, Dr David Brown, carried out tests which found not only could manganese replace copper in the brain proteins, but it transformed them into the protease resistant isoforms which are found in TSE diseased brains. Purdey reckons that Phosmet (remember it's 'poured' onto the spinal cord) prevents the brain proteins bonding with the copper, which is subsequently replaced by manganese - readily available to cows in high dose mineral licks. The CJD and BSE symptoms also mirror 'manganese madness', an irreversible fatal neuro-psychiatric degenerative syndrome which plagued manganese miners in the first half of last century. "If Phosmet is proven to have caused BSE, the worldwide use of organophosphates could be put into jeopardy, costing the chemical industry billions. The government know more than they're letting on. They've stuck to the scrapie theory to placate people and give the impression they've got it under control," says Purdey.

Whether Purdey is a genius or a paranoiac, MAFF's continued reluctance to explore the OP link to BSE is significant. "Anyone with a suitable proposal [concerning the cause of BSE] can approach MAFF for funding," a spokesman told SQUALL. However Brown could not continue his research as he couldn't get more funding, and another chemist, Steven Whatley, had to stop similar tests a year ago for the same reasons.

Richard Young, of the Soil Association, said: "If it could be established that BSE was caused by OPs. It would be a major liability issue for both the government and manufacturers."

More sinister is the attention Purdey, and those who have taken up his theory, have received. His house was mysteriously burnt down, a structuraly sound barn collapsed onto the caravan housing his science library. He's been shot at, (another anti OP campaigner's husband had his fingers broken) and following the publication of an article in The Independent in 1993, he awoke to find his telephone lines cut - preventing him receiving follow up media calls. He says strangers with in depth knowledge of his movements appear on his farm freaking out his wife and when he travels to talk about his theory he is constantly tailed.

The solicitor who defended his High Court action died when his car went inexplicably out of control. Purdey's vet (who said this theory should be taken seriously) was killed in what one of Somerset's local paper described as: "Mystery vet death riddle", when his car was "magnetised" into the front of an oncoming lorry on a clear straight road. "I'm easier to marginalise as a crank," said Purdey. "But these people were professionals."

Anyone familiar with the start of the anti-nuclear movement, may recall the discrediting of Alice Stewart who discovered the link between radiation and cancer. Scientists who aligned themselves with her had their cars rammed off the road. In 1978 four children belonging to anti-herbicide activist Carol Van Strum were killed in a house fire in Five Rivers, USA. In 1993, also in the US, a couple who filed a suit against the pharmaceutical company Merck - claiming contamination from their plant had caused the death of their unborn baby - had their house broken into eleven times and a doctor who was helping them had his dog's throat cut.

However Mark Purdey may yet be making some headway. With the aid of his MP, former Tory defence minister Tom King, he's managed to secure a meeting with MAFF and Food Safety Minister, Baroness Hayman, for the first week in April with a view to obtaining a research grant.

The MRC's David Ray says he is interested in identifying OP toxicity and that all new scientific theories should be tested. Except for Purdey's that is, because he thinks it is "implausible". He adds: "I'm not the only scientist around." Though this is not the sort of research chemical companies are flocking to fund.

Sources within MAFF say they are about to take the possibility of linking OPs and BSE seriously - but whether they wish to take the issue up in order to discredit it, remains to be seen.

Dr David Brown's work on manganese and TSE is published in the current issue of Embojournal.

Lord Phillips' BSE Inquiry Report is due for publication on March 31.

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