»  National Review Online

March 5th, 2001

  Bring On the Nutburgers


When mighty roast beef was the Englishman's food
It ennobl'd our veins and enrichéd our blood;
Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good.

Chorus:  Oh! The roast beef of old England,
And old English roast beef.

The roast beef of Old England doesn't look so appetizing nowadays. An outbreak of foot and mouth disease was diagnosed two weeks ago on some English farms. The disease is transmitted by a virus, the aphthovirus, which belongs to the same family as the rhinoviruses that cause the common cold in humans. It is lethal to cloven-hoof animals like cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. They develop sores on, of course, their feet and mouths, then sicken and die quickly as the heart muscle is affected. Humans can catch foot and mouth, but the results are mild in our species. Foot and mouth disease is not a public health disaster, it is an economic disaster for farmers.

Like those rhinoviruses, the aphthovirus is transmitted very easily. It can actually survive and travel on airborne particles, up to 40 miles overland and further across the sea. The only way to stop an outbreak is by heroic containment: slaughter of infected animals, "fire-break" slaughter of apparently healthy animals in transmission zones (like a cold, the disease is infectious before symptoms appear), and quarantine.

All these measures are now being taken in Britain. Fourteen thousand animals have already been slaughtered and 60,000 more are under death sentence. Farms have been quarantined with a rigor reminiscent of medieval plague times. One unfortunate farmer's wife was at work in a nearby town when the farm's quarantine order was served. She is not permitted to go home.

Events that might attract large numbers of country people, carrying the virus on their boots, have been cancelled. Racing has been suspended. So have rugby games: soccer is the urban sport in the British Isles, rugby the game of country people. The Republic of Ireland, so far uninfected but very afraid, has called off St Patrick's Day celebrations, and foot and mouth is now the number one topic of conversation in that country. (The "troubles" in the North, which are the first thing that come to mind if you mention Ireland to an American, rarely rank above topic number 100 in Irish conversation. Ireland is still, for all the talk of a "Celtic Tiger," pre-eminently a farming country, and a sure way to get the attention of the average Irishman in a.d. 2001 is to inquire about the price of cattle. If medieval Irish literature is anything to go by, this was equally true in a.d. 1001, a.d. 1, and very probably in 1001 and 2001 b.b. too.)

But since we have learned from all-vaporing France
To eat their ragouts, as well as to dance,
We are fed up with nothing but vain complaisance.

Chorus:  Oh! The roast beef of old England …

The February 20 outbreak of foot and mouth was another blow in a series that have fallen on the British countryside recently. In January the House of Commons — the lower house of the legislature — voted to ban fox-hunting, for centuries the quintessential countryside sport of England (somewhat less so of Scotland, Wales and Ireland). Until the early 20th century, in fact, the word "sport," to an Englishman, meant hunting, shooting and fishing. The ban is unlikely to become law, but the vote was much resented by country people.

The countryside of England has also become a very disorderly place, plagued with crime. This state of affairs was symbolized last year in the case of a farmer named Tony Martin, whose lonely property had been broken into so many times that Martin had taken to keeping a shotgun beside his bed. In August 1999, a team of young burglars, all habitual criminals, broke into the house while Martin was at home. He shot at them; one died from his wounds, and last April Martin was jailed for life, in spite of great public support for him.

While battered by crime, disease, and official hostility to their traditional pastimes, English farmers are being dragged down into poverty by large economic forces. Farmer's incomes have dropped 90 per cent in five years. A typical 500-acre family farm earned $120,000 in 1995. Last year the same farm earned $12,000. The culprits here are a strong pound sterling, high fuel costs and low prices for farm products.

When good Queen Elizabeth sate on the throne,
E'er coffee and tea and such slip-slops were known,
The world was in terror if e'er she did frown.

Chorus:  Oh! The roast beef of old England …

To grasp the effect of all this on the national psyche, you have to understand that the imagination of the English is haunted by an image — a very prettified, idealized image, of course — of the old Saxon village community. You see this everywhere, especially in advertisements, the surest windows into a nation's soul. What log cabins, whitewashed clapboard churches, sleigh bells and cowboys are to Americans; what inaccessible hermitages in foliage-dense mountains and knight-errants with fantastic martial powers are to the Chinese; what the tents and flocks and fierce, narrow loyalties of desert nomadism are to the Arabs; just so are thatched cottages, ancient hedgerows, tankards of ale, old manor houses and the novels of Thomas Hardy to the English.

It's all fantasy, of course, and very few English people would actually want to live that life for longer than a week, any more than your average Saudi businessman is keen to go back to fighting over water holes in the desert. These are deep, irrational things. They are the foundation of people's feelings about their nationality, though, and even to some degree of our individual personalities. When they are seen to be going dramatically wrong, there is bound to be psychic distress.

In those days, if fleets did presume on the main,
They seldom or never returned back again
As witness, the vaunting Armada of Spain.

Chorus:  Oh! The roast beef of old England …

The foot and mouth epidemic follows years of anxiety about another cattle disease, BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), popularly known as "mad cow disease." Unlike foot and mouth, this does affect humans. At any rate, we think it does; it is strongly suspected that meat infected with BSE causes "new variant Creuzfeld-Jakob disease" in humans. This horrible affliction, generally shortened to "nvCJD" is somewhat like Alzheimer's, with gradual loss of speech and motor control. It is possible, in fact, that some Alzheimer's patients actually have nvCJD, since the disease can lurk in the body for decades before exhibiting symptoms. More than 80 people have died from nvCJD in Britain.

BSE is thought to have been spread by the gruesome practice of recycling waste meat products into animal feed, thus making sheep and cattle into cannibals. It figured briefly as a health scare in the US, making headlines in 1996 when Oprah Winfrey declared she would no longer eat hamburgers, causing the price of beef futures to collapse. We should probably be more worried about BSE than we are. The agents and mechanism of infection are poorly understood, and the connection with nvCJD still a topic of debate among virologists.

As farmers flee the countryside and meat-eating becomes more and more associated with disease, the end result may be that the English turn into a nation of vegetarians. Just the TV images of heaps of animal corpses being burned are enough to give one second thoughts about our customary diet. Watching such dreadful things, we are reminded that the tender steaks and juicy ribs on our dinner plates are brought to us by work we would not care to do ourselves. (American slaughter-houses are staffed mainly by illegal immigrants and poor rural blacks, as an article in the New York Times recently reported [6/16/00]. Nobody else will do the work.) Isaiah's verses come to mind: "And the lion shall eat straw like the ox … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain."

There will be more of these meat scares, and there is no reason to think America will be immune. It may be that the scares will trigger a great change in our habits, away from meat-eating altogether. It may be that steaks, ribs and chops are about to go the way of cigarettes: shunned first for reasons of health, then from fear of social stigma. The slaughter-houses of today may look as shocking to our grandchildren as Dickens's work-houses, or the slave cabins of the old South, look to us.

As a man who likes his meat, I shall be sorry. When I look at horrifying pictures like the one on page 51 of the current (March 3, 2001) Economist, though, I can't push away the reflection that these are God's creatures, the same as ourselves, and that for the sake of our appetites, we are doing something unspeakable to them. Do nutburgers really taste all that bad?

But now we are dwindled to — what shall I name?
A sneaking poor race, half-begotten and tame,
Who sully those honors that once shone in fame.

Chorus:  Oh! The roast beef of old England,
And old English roast beef.


[Footnote:  "The Roast Beef of Old England" was composed in 1735 by Richard Leveridge (c.1670-1758), a song-writer and singer (bass) in England. It was a great 18th-century favorite — the 18th century ended in 1815, of course — along with other songs now known only to children and antiquarians, like "Lilliburlero" and "Yankee Doodle." You can find short extracts on the Web, for example here, or on sites run by fans of the author Patrick O'Brian. There is a full recording by the English mezzo Lucie Skeaping, on the splendid CD English National Songs.]