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No Gut (Strings) No Glory

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There is a really nasty disease out there called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy. When it afflicts beef cattle, it is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Humans who eat the meat of BSE-infected cattle can contract Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, commonly known as "Mad Cow Disease."

In an effort to prevent another outbreak of Mad Cow Disease, the European Union has recently taken steps to tighten its already strict limits on the use of bovine intestines. This has sparked all sorts of hysteria in the music world. There is a two word reason for this furor: Gut strings.

It is an unpopular thing to say, but the European Union is not acting irrationally here. Most people would agree that restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of BSE among the herds of Europe are reasonable. But on the other hand, many argue that bureaucracy has run amok when the result of these restrictions is to cripple the "period instrument movement."

So how did we go from "That's reasonable" to "How absurd"?

The European Union believes -- not without reason -- that it must ensure the safety of Europe's beef supply. Public perception plays a role here, and the policy makers have concluded that when confronted with "gray areas" it is wisest to err on the side of public safety. After all, Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease is a particularly ghastly way to die, and not many cases of it are necessary to devastate the European beef industry with resulting massive economic loss.

The last major Mad Cow Disease scare resulted in part from beeves that had been fed offal. The offal included "animal byproducts" (a nice name for bovine parts) that had been ground up and made part of the cattle feed. So as part of an effort to control the spread of BSE, the European Union imposed strict limits on the use of cow parts; in typical European Union fashion, the relevant regulations go on for literally hundreds of pages. The restrictions are not new, but they originally allowed for exceptions. The EU has now eliminated many of them, and an outcry has resulted.

But why the panic? It seems that the majority of "gut strings" used by musicians come from bovine intestines. Gut strings are deemed a necessity by musicians who play "period instruments" or play in groups that follow the "historically informed" school of performance. To these folks, the idea of the music of Telemann being played on an instrument with steel or synthetic strings is akin to hearing the music of Richard Wagner played on a kazoo.

Apparently, there is no acceptable substitute for gut strings made from beeves. Sheep gut, lamb gut, ram gut are inferior products, incapable of meeting the rigors of performance, less durable than cow gut, and seemingly more expensive. Matters recently came to a head when a major Italian producer of strings made from bovine intestines stopped manufacture due to the tightened EU restrictions.

The obvious complaint has been that the production of gut strings made from the intestines of cows has nothing to do with the spread of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, full stop. Even the most committed cellist is unlikely to eat his or her used cello strings as part of any meal or as a snack. By bringing the general goal (stop the spread of the disease) down to the particular (no more bovine gut strings) an absurdity has been created in the public's mind. But is it really so absurd?

As nearly as I can tell from a cursory reading of the EU regulations, it is now impossible to traffic in the intestines "from the duodenum to the rectum and the mesentery of bovine animals." And since cow gut strings start their life in that neighborhood of the cow's anatomy, string makers can't get the raw material.

What is at play here is a policy decision that is entirely defensible: The EU needs to keep Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy from getting into bovines (where it becomes known as BSE) and it needs to keep beef infected with BSE out of the stream of commerce, lest some carnivore eat it and die of Mad Cow Disease. To achieve this goal, the EU has imposed strict controls on bovine intestines, destroying them at the location of slaughter or transporting them under tight control to a facility where, under equally tight control, they can be destroyed or turned into biogas. The EU has concluded that stopping the trafficking in bovine intestines as close to the place of slaughter as possible is the best way to keep Mad Cow Disease away from the population of Europe. The EU's strategy for the control of Mad Cow Disease is not the only such strategy out there. It is, however, the one that the EU's policy makers have decided on.

But why, in heaven's name, can't an exception be made for the string makers? If the entire strategy to contain the disease is based on never letting a bovine intestine out of sight of an inspector or regulated handler from the moment it leaves the cow to the minute it is destroyed, you don't start nibbling away at the edges of the strategy. Public perception is important, and when you lose the ability to tell the public in complete honesty that the regulatory scheme tracks every commercially slaughtered cow's or bull's intestine from slaughter to destruction you allow doubt to seep into the public mind. Such doubt is quite literally bad for business.

And in fact, the panic and hysteria among the violinists, violists, cellists and others in the period instrument movement is just that: panic and hysteria. Although favored string makers based in Europe will doubtless cease operation or move productoin overseas, it is a safe bet that string makers in other countries, where the containment strategy for Mad Cow Disease does not require the close tracking of every bovine intestine, will pick up the slack.

The EU's problem is not with gut strings, the EU's problem is with bovine guts. It is quite likely that even the strictest EU regulator would agree that by the time the bovine intestine is transformed into a violin string it has been processed to such an extent that any BSE that may have been in it is now deader than Marley and, thus, can be imported into the EU in its processed, finished form. If that hypothetical regulator is really strict, he or she might go so far as to insist that the finished strings, before being allowed into the EU, must be irradiated to really, really, really make sure that they are disease free.

Since the United States does not insist on tracking bovine guts in the same manner as nuclear waste (which is sort of what the EU does) I suspect that if a string maker in, say, Minnesota, manufactures gut strings as he or she always has they are probably importable into the EU. But if the Minnesota string maker adds the additional step of irradiating the finished strings, they'll pass through EU control easily. The viola da gamba player in Venice may not get precisely the intonation on the Minnesota string that he is used to, but he's not out of business.

So what this dust-up is all about, really, is annoyance and inconvenience to the period instrument string player. As a public policy matter, such annoyance or inconvenience is a pretty small price to pay for greater safety of Europe's beef-eating citizens.