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Britain's BSE: Where the blame is laid

Douglas Hogg
Minister Douglas Hogg told parliament British beef was "something to be proud of"  

In this story:

The politicians

The civil servants and scientists

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Although the Phillips report into "mad cow" disease in Britain contains serious criticism about the way the BSE crisis was handled, it falls a long way short of the outright condemnation widely predicted.

Indeed the report says that in the years up to March 1996, most British ministers and officials responsible for responding to the BSE challenge "emerge with credit."

Lord Phillips said people were "misguided" rather than guilty of any more serious offence.


Robin Oakley:
"The report criticises the British government"

253kb/23 sec. WAV sound


Nick Brown:
"The government did not lie to the public"

240kb/21 sec. WAV sound


Tim Yeo:
"I am truly sorry for what has happened"

281kb/25 sec. WAV sound

But individual criticisms are made of government ministers, chief medical officers and senior civil servants, as well as scientific advisers.

British ministers played down the links between BSE-infected beef and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and misled the public about the risks posed by mad cow disease, the report says.

The two-and-a-half year inquiry said officials and ministers in the previous Conservative government, haunted by fears of consumer panic and the loss of valuable beef exports, doggedly stuck to a mistaken "campaign of reassurance."

The government was "preoccupied" with preventing an alarmist reaction to BSE and "risk communication" was flawed.

Ministers and civil servants had no contingency plans for dealing with a situation where vCJD was found to be caused by BSE-infected beef, even years after the first evidence was uncovered, it said.

The politicians

John Gummer, Agriculture Secretary from 1998 to 1993 was praised by the report for introducing more openness into the Ministry of Agriculture.

He also escaped censure for insisting in May 1990 that beef was safe to eat, because he qualified his statement by saying it was based on an assumption that the ban on high-risk tissue entering the food chain was in place and being enforced.

However, there was criticism of Mr Gummer for his May 1990 publicity stunt, in which he was filmed feeding a beef burger to his four-year-old daughter.

Mr Gummer told the inquiry that he had been challenged by a newspaper to demonstrate his confidence in beef in this way. "The report said: "Mr Gummer was faced with choosing between two unattractive alternatives.

"It may seem with hindsight that, caught in a no-win situation, he chose the wrong option, but it is not a matter for which he ought to be criticised."

The report has sterner criticism for Douglas Hogg, Agriculture Minister 1995-97, accusing him of not acting quickly enough when confronted with evidence of a link between vCJD and contaminated meat.

Mr Hogg told the inquiry that he had come up with the "30-month scheme" (a ban on the sale of beef over 30 months old) months before it was announced in March 1996.

But the report disputed that, saying the panel was convinced he had not come up with the scheme until shortly before it was announced.

He was also criticised for not involving the Department of Health in discussions about how to deal with the crisis.

In December 1995, Mr Hogg tried to reassure the public about the safety of beef by attempting to get experts from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) -- the government's advisory committee on mad cow disease -- to back his statements.

The report said: "With hindsight, we can see that it was not a desirable exercise."

But Mr Hogg was praised for "reading the riot act" to slaughterhouse operators in 1995 after shocking levels of hygiene were found.

Health secretary Stephen Dorrell was also criticised for playing down the risk of BSE-infected beef contaminating humans.

He was the minister whoin 1996 informed the British public of a "possible link" between the cattle disease and vCJD.

The report said it was "regrettable" he made comments in more extreme language than he was able to justify.

John MacGregor, Agriculture Minister 1987-89 was meanwhile attacked for covering up the fact that experts were advising their concern of BSE-infected meat entering the human food chain.

The civil servants and scientists

The UK government chief veterinary officer from 1988 to 1997 Keith Meldurm is heavily criticised in the report.

It says he failed to take account of the fact that BSE could possibly move between species, infecting other animals and even humans.

He is criticised for telling John Gummer that there was no link between BSE and a cat with a CJD-like illness.

Sir Donald Acheson, the Briitsh government's chief medical officer from 1983 to 1991, was also accused of making a statement that was likely to give a false reassurance to the public of the risks of the passing BSE to humans.

The report says that poor communication between government departments meant the Department of Health was not kept informed of the increasing weight of evidence proving a link between BSE and vCJD.

It adds that the government relied too much on experts from SEAC to formulate policy and spent too long consulting with experts before implementing advice.

Britain's beef industry escapes serious criticism in the report.

The Ministry of Agriculture was not guilty of following a policy which favoured agricultural producers to the detriment of the consumer, it says.

However, the report adds: "At times officials showed a lack of rigour in considering how policy should be turned into practice, to the detriment of the efficacy of the measures taken."

Colin Maclean, director-general of the UK Meat and Livestock Commission was however accused of "absurd exaggerations". The commission's 1995 advertising campaign aimed at reassuring people about the safety of beef had, said the report, created a climate where "hyperbole replaced accuracy."

'Mad cow' report criticises British officials
October 26, 2000
The nightmare of variant CJD
October 25, 2000
Chirac demands new BSE measures
October 25, 2000

BSE inquiry report
British Minsitry of Agriculture

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