Abattoir Fever

The Australian government has just suspended live cattle exports to Indonesia because of the outcry following a television program on slaughterhouses there, and the awful conditions in which the cattle are killed.

We’ve been raising beef cattle across northern Australia for more than a century, but until quite recently, animals were slaughtered in Australia, and the meat frozen for export. Chilled beef and mutton exports first took off in the 1880s.  The pioneer here was the businessman Thomas Mort, who first experimented with refrigeration during the 1870s.  After his death, his company eventually became part of the agricultural conglomerate Elders Smith Goldsborough Mort.

The main market for frozen meat was Britain, and later China and Japan, but in the last two decades, far more animals have been exported alive.  This is particularly true for exports to Muslim countries, where the animals are killed on arrival, either because of a preference for freshly killed meat, or to meet Halal practices, or both.

This shift has now come unstuck, at least temporarily.  So the cattle industry is faced with a problem: how to process animals here, when many of the smaller abattoirs in northern Australia have disappeared.

Beef shorthorn

Brisbane once had a number of abattoirs, one run by the Meat Board, which killed animals for the local market; and private ones run by Borthwicks and Swifts, processing meat for export.  Seventy years ago, this led to an epidemiological mystery.

One evening in 1934, three doctors met for a drink at the Johnsonian Club in central Brisbane.  Amongst more general gossip, one of them mentioned that he was treating two men for similar fevers.  Not only were the fevers very similar, but coincidentally both worked in the same abattoir in Brisbane, run by the Meat Board at Cannon Hill.

Also at the Johnsonian Club that night was the Director General of Health, Dr. Raphael Cilento.  The coincidence tweaked his interest, and a bit of investigation showed that the fever was endemic amongst meat workers, with at least 20 cases of the disease at the abattoir between 1933 and 1935. It was so common that the men looked on it almost as a rite of passage, because one episode of fever seemed to give them immunity from further outbreaks.  Most men recovered quite quickly, but it sometimes led to complications, such as endocarditis, which can kill.  This disease is now known as Q-fever.

The Queensland government had just set up a laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology within the Department of Health, and Cilento asked Dr Ted Derrick, the newly appointed director, to investigate.

Derrick investigated the disease clinically, and eventually identified the pathogen causing the disease, a single celled organism named Coxiella burnetii.  The name recognizes his co-contributors to the research, Macfarlane Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, and Herald Cox, who found the same pathogen in deer in Montana.

Once it was identified and described, Q-fever turned out to be quite common, associated with people working with animals, particularly dead animals.  It was known as ‘swineherd’s fever’ in Europe.  Towards the end of the Second World War, as American soldiers fought their way north through Italy, sleeping in barns and farmyards, many city boys who had never been exposed to farm animals suffered from what they called ‘the Balkan grippe’, not deadly, but debilitating in an war situation.

Derrick also looked at the epidemiology of Q-fever.  There was a puzzle: in the 1930s the fever occurred regularly amongst workers at the Meat Board’s abattoir, which killed animals of all quality for the local market, but not at Borthwick’s private meatworks opposite, which killed only top quality beasts for the export trade.

The Brisbane government abattoir was a new innovation, centralizing meat processing in a single large facility, whereas before the 1930s, most meat was killed locally.  No doubt many farmers and butchers had suffered from fevers before, but only when a lot of abattoir workers were gathered together, did the coincidence of ‘abattoir fever’ become obvious.

And the puzzle of the two abattoirs?  Coxiella burnetii is most prevalent in pregnant animals, concentrating in the placenta.  In the 1930s, ‘export quality’ beef was superior to the meat eaten locally.  Borthwick’s beasts were all young bullocks, and uninfected, whereas meat for the locals included ‘crackers’ – old dairy cows sent to slaughter after a lifetime of calving.  They were a much greater source of disease.

Minced beef

In other words, in the 1930s, ‘export quality’ meant the best quality, whereas the cattle now caught up in the halted production line for export to Indonesia are grass fed and bred light, and won’t easily find a new market in Australia.  Except as mincemeat – which is what the current Meat and Livestock Association and the Minister for Agriculture may very well be too.

E.H.Derrick, ‘A Mystery Fever invades Brisbane’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 2, no. 3, 1971, pp. 39-51.

One response to “Abattoir Fever

  1. Pingback: Dingo Dreaming | Historians are Past Caring

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