SCOTLAND'S proudly 'high-health' beef industry is now on equally high-alert, following the confirmation that BSE has been found in a Scottish cow for the first time in 10 years.

But the alarm is not over the potential for a wider outbreak, as everyone in the industry knows how obsessively thorough its precautions are against BSE, and how heavily the science is now weighted against it ever again becoming a widespread problem – the fear is firmly centred on how the media will report this isolated case, and how the red meat sector's social media savvy enemies may exploit it.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is a far from typical disease. In nature, it and the related family of 'transmissible spongiform encephalopathies' that afflict various species, including man, are rare oddities, arising spontaneously in populations at a very low rate, literally a one-in-a-million condition.

Its cause, although still the subject of much research, is equally atypical – a rogue protein called a prion, smaller than any bacteria or virus – and not strictly speaking 'alive' in the same reproducing and evolving way as either of those – which disrupts brain tissue at a molecular level, oblivious to any attempt to stop it.

However, as far as anyone has been able to prove, the only way these sporadic aberrations of mammal brain chemistry can spread within species is by direct consumption, or via the maternal line.

The 'Mad Cow' headlines that closed the 20th century were a result of the then common practice of grinding up and rendering abattoir leftovers to produce meat-and-bonemeal, to be used as a feed additive, most commonly to serve the high protein needs of dairy cattle. This efficiently-minded cannibalism created a feedback loop wherein the vanishingly small natural dosage of prions got fed to the maximum number of animals, and the percentage that then succumbed went back into the same system, and in the space of a few years, BSE cases were numbered in the tens of thousands.

It is impossible to overstate the lengths to which the UK and EU red meat sector has since gone to fix that awful mistake, beginning with an outright ban on MBM in ruminant feed in 1994, and followed ever since by the surrender and destruction of any animal old enough to have potentially developed the condition, and the removal from younger animals of the 'Specified Risk Materials' where prions could theoretically be, were there any of them left in the feed system.

Of the 73 million European cattle tested at slaughter for signs of BSE in the decade after this clampdown, only sixty cases were found, while the tale of this last decade has been of the UK's devolved nations jockeying to see who would be first to achieve the internationally recognised squeaky-clean 'Negligible Risk' status by being entirely free of any hint of BSE for seven or more years, a race that Scotland and Northern Ireland ultimately won, after Wales detected a single case in 2015, and had to trudge back to the starting line of 'controlled risk' status – where Scotland now unfortunately joins it.

In business terms, that is an unwelcome inconvenience, particularly during the sector's preparation for whatever Brexit is going to do to its export markets, but it is far from a disaster, and can even be positively spun that 20 years on from BSE's heyday, Scotland's safeguards are still on point to catch a prion needle in its beef supply chain haystack.

No, the real concern – as highlighted in Quality Meat Scotland chair Kate Rowell's reaction to the news – is how this BSE blip might be presented and amplified by the febrile forces of the media, both tabloid and social, where health scares and animal stories are always top-grade clickbait. Our livestock farmers are still reeling from highly debatable batterings by climate change scientists over grazing animals' contribution to greenhouse gases; by welfarists over production chain nitty-gritty like the export of surplus dairy calves; and by the vocal minority of vegans over the morality of meat and dairy consumption altogether. The last thing they need or indeed deserve now are overblown 'Mad Cow' headlines striking fear into the heart of consumers hovering between the butchers' counter and that chill cabinet full of Quorn.