Issue 224 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

A lot at steak

BSE inquiry

Bones of contention

The official inquiry into the BSE crisis has revealed repeated attempts to conceal facts and information about the extent of the disease and its dangers. It is now clear that those accused of scaremongering were absolutely right to raise the alarm.

Not only has it emerged that the Tories and their friends in the meat industry were guilty of gross incompetence in the way they dealt with this serious threat to public health--there was clearly also an attempt on a number of occasions to hide the real truth from the ordinary people whose lives were being put at risk. Perhaps even more shocking than these revelations of past misdeeds is the fact that a similarly cavalier attitude to our health and safety is being continued under New Labour.

The defences of some of those involved in the cover up would make good farce, if the human consequences of BSE were not so tragic. Take the statement of Sir Kenneth Calman, the government's Chief Medical Officer from 1991 until recently. He admits having received 'important new information' in 1995 that BSE posed a threat to human health. Yet at the time both Calman and various Tory ministers continued to argue that beef was safe to eat. Calman now defends himself by arguing that 'safe does not necessarily mean zero risk'!

Other evidence shows that the government ignored a series of reports from its own safety inspectors which showed that farmers and abattoirs around the country were routinely ignoring safety guidelines. In the food industry itself, an official vet at an abattoir in Bristol was sacked after she challenged the abattoir's blatant acceptance of uncertified carcasses from farmers.

The latest admissions vindicate Professor Richard Lacey, former professor of microbiology at Leeds University, who was himself victimised after he warned of the dangers of what the government was doing. Criticising the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), he argued, 'Traditionally MAFF has always been responsible primarily for food production. The cynical pretence that it now has a prime responsibility to protect the consumer is one of the best examples of doublespeak in recent times. Let us be quite open about this: MAFF protects the farmers, food processors, large retailers and various related bodies such as pharmaceutical companies.'

The food industry has always tended to put its profits ahead of our health and safety. The origins of the BSE crisis lie in Margaret Thatcher's extension of that principle to new heights of callousness. Thatcher's abolition of safety guidelines governing animal feed rendering, coupled with an increased drive to fatten animals as quickly and cheaply as possible (using the remains of other animals), led to the disease. At the same time, the Tories cut our means of checking food safety. The number of scientists involved in agriculture and food science fell from 6,500 to 3,500 between the mid-1980s and early 90s. Many food scientists are now employed by the very companies whose products they are supposed to be investigating.

What is most shocking is that so little seems to have been learned from the BSE crisis. Tony Blair shows the same uncritical adoration of the market as Thatcher, and New Labour is already showing many of the same characteristics over its handling of food safety that people thought had disappeared with the Tories.

A recent sign of this was the government's reaction to a statement from one of its own committee members. Professor Almond, chairman of one of the government's own health committees, has raised the possibility that 'BSE is out there in the sheep population'. As a precaution he suggested testing of sheep for the disease 'as a matter of urgency'. So far only nine sheep have been tested. Yet the government has rejected such a measure, and even attacked the advice of the Consumers' Association that parents should stop feeding their children lamb. Another fear is the safety of the waste left over after infected carcasses are destroyed. The waste is being spread on fields, despite questions over whether the BSE infectious agent has been eliminated.

Meanwhile, across Europe we look set to see a further spread of BSE as other governments ignore the lessons of the past. It still remains impossible to gauge the likely scale of the epidemic facing us. Officially 28 people have now died from CJD, the human form of BSE. The latest victim, a young woman of 24, only died last month. The true figure may be significantly higher, according to another admission from the inquiry. At least 16 other people died of similar symptoms but were never acknowledged as having CJD. A number of years can elapse after a person is infected before they show symptoms of the disease.
John Parrington


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