BSE

Gavin Strang addressed the meeting of Labour Party Rural Revival held at Labour’s Spring Conference in Glasgow. Chaired by LPRR’s John Hough, the meeting took place at 6.30pm at the Arthouse Hotel on Saturday 17 February and the other speakers included Gordon Adam MEP.

Gavin Strang MP said:

”At the heart of the BSE story lie questions of how to handle hazard – a known hazard to cattle and an unknown hazard to humans. The government took measures to address both hazards. They were sensible measures, but they were not always timely nor adequately implemented and enforced.’

‘With typical understatement, this key conclusion of Lord Phillips BSE Inquiry Report tells us why a disease in cattle was allowed to cause a crisis on a massive scale.

‘The proportions of the BSE crisis are huge.

‘Since the disease was first recognised in 1986, nearly 180,000 cases of BSE have been confirmed on over 35,000 farms in Great Britain. After the then Conservative Government announced in March 1996 that BSE was the probable cause of a new variant of CJD (vCJD), the subsequent crisis in UK agriculture has cost the taxpayer £4 billion, and the repercussions of that crisis are still felt throughout our farming industry.

‘There have been 94 probable or definite cases of vCJD in humans in the UK to date. That number is rising. The scale of the risk to human health is as yet unknown.

‘The impact of BSE has not been confined to the UK. In the past, our EU partners tended to see BSE as a British problem. While a few cases of BSE a year have been reported in cattle born in France, Ireland, Portugal and Switzerland since the late 1980’s, the understandable concern of other EU member states has been to protect themselves from any risk presented from Britain. But cases of BSE in animals born outside the UK have started to emerge in more and more countries. Since 1997, cases of BSE have been found in animals born in Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and – most explosively – Germany. The EU budget is now under enormous pressure as beef sales plummet, and two German Ministers have had to resign over their handling of BSE.

‘So what went wrong? There were many failings, but four areas merit special attention.

‘Firstly, delay. Measures to protect human and animal health were not put in place as quickly as they should have been.

‘While BSE was first identified in November 1986, animals showing symptoms of the disease were still allowed to go into human food until August 1988. When it was realised that sheep and cattle should not eat sheep and cattle, rather than buying up and destroying the suspect feed, the government gave the industry five weeks’ grace to clear their stocks of feed – and some in the industry took a mile and continued to use those stocks after the ban came into force. It was not until November 1989 that the brains and spinal cord of all cattle were banned from human food in England and Wales – January 1990 in Scotland.

‘The mechanical recovery of meat, which can result in infective material ripped out from in and around the spinal column going into human food, was not banned until 1995.

‘Second, under-enforcement. Measures to protect human and animal health were appallingly badly enforced, in the feedmills and in the slaughterhouses.
‘Our cattle were still eating contaminated feed many years after it was banned in 1988 – BSE has been confirmed in an animal born as late as 1996. Over 42,000 cases of BSE have been confirmed in cattle born after the feed ban. And in human food, nearly half the slaughterhouses visited in September 1995 were found to be in breach of BSE controls designed to keep infective offal from our food – five years after the offal ban was put in place.

‘Third, failures of communication. Far too often in the BSE story we see Government Departments failing to talk to one another, waiting too long before seeking out the best scientific advice, and looking to scientists to pronounce on areas outside their field of expertise.

‘Lack of communication between MAFF and the Department of Health resulted in the delay in introducing the slaughter and compensation policy and in addressing the risk posed by bovine products in human medicines. The experts at the Neuropathegenesis Unit could have told the government that it was at least possible that BSE could be transmitted to cattle by tiny amounts of infective feed years before the information was sought. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee was depended upon for policy advice to such an extent that there was no contingency planning by government departments or ministers in the weeks that led up to the announcement of the link with vCJD – Ministers came to the House of Commons with no strategy in place to address the repercussions of their statements.

‘Finally, giving the public the false impression that BSE posed no risk. So keen were the Government to try to prevent food scares that the public were not properly informed about the risks presented by BSE. Lord Phillips says, ‘officials and Ministers followed an approach whose object was sedation’.
‘So when the news broke in March 1996 about the link with vCJD, ‘the public felt they had been betrayed’. There was then a massive crisis in the public’s confidence not only in the safety of beef, but also in the trustworthiness of official advice.

‘It was not just the public that was lulled by the government’s soothing words. Disastrously, people in the food industry were listening to the government’s campaign of reassurance. Keeping BSE out of human food required rigorous enforcement of rules in slaughterhouses, but the people enforcing those rules did not believe that BSE was a risk to human health. The BSE report concludes that the lack of diligence in keeping our food safe was attributable in part to the government’s efforts to make sure that news about BSE did not give rise to public concern.

‘So what does BSE mean today? Recent years have seen significant changes. The Labour Government has honoured its promise and set up an independent Food Standards Agency which is responsible for food safety policy in the UK, and which has the protection of public health as its central aim. The Government’s interim response to the BSE Report has just been published, with enhanced care arrangements for vCJD patients and proposed improvements to the machinery of government.

‘And if a new disease appears on our farms tomorrow, how should Government respond? The key lessons of the BSE crisis are:

  • Apply the precautionary principle. When human health is involved it is always wise in the first instance to err on the side of caution.
  • Identify all possible routes of transmission to other animals and to humans, and impose all measures necessary to reduce the risk of transmission to a low a level as reasonably possible.
  • Ensure that all measures in place to protect human and animal health are properly enforced.
  • Be open. Open government is the best policy. Even when the information available at the time is inconclusive, the public can cope with the truth. What the public cannot cope with is the realisation that they are not being told the whole truth.

‘There were failings in the handling of BSE. The harsh reality is that those failings mean that animals and – almost certainly – people who should have been protected from the BSE agent have been exposed to it. We are seeing the end of the disease in cattle, but we still do not know what the scale of the impact of mad cow disease will be on human health. We can only hope that the number of new cases of vCJD in humans will begin to fall soon.’