Health: Poison on our plates

The man blew the whistle on BSE has written a truly frightening book.
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The Independent Culture
While reading this book, my children were playing a tape of the fable of The Emperor's New Clothes. Its moral was clear, that pointing out the truth to authority is not only the right thing to do, but it also brings rewards. In the real world, however, pointing out inconvenient truths is rarely appreciated, as Professor Richard Lacey has painfully discovered over the past 15 years.

The man who blew the whistle not only on BSE but also on salmonella, listeria and cook-chill has been forced out of his job, suffered death threats and been dubbed the "mad professor" - a hysteric who was academically out of his depth. Last week, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science festival, I was confidentially told that he was a bit too fond of the media and had ventured out of his field over BSE. This about a man who wrote one of the definitive scientific review papers on the topic back in 1990 and on the day that a news story indicated that BSE could have passed to sheep. A lot of effort went into blackening Lacey's name.

It is now clear that the BSE crisis was appallingly handled. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), other Whitehall departments and the ministers involved were all astoundingly economical with the truth when it came to informing the public about what they knew or, at least, what they suspected. The policy was to avoid admitting anything that might damage the interests of farmers and food producers, regardless of the possible dangers to the public health. In Poison on a Plate: the dangers of the food we eat and how to avoid them (Metro, pounds 12.99), Lacey, clearly and straightforwardly, details one fudge and lie after another. It is a shocking read.

For example, the one detail of the BSE story that everyone remembers is that the cows probably developed the disease when they were fed ground- up animal protein. Turning herbivores into cannibals is so horrible it sticks in the mind. What Lacey makes clear, however, is that, although it hardly put farmers in a good light, this explanation suited the farming lobby and their allies such as Maff very well. It provided an explanation of how the whole thing started and, by implication, meant that the trouble should be over once the practise stopped.

But while it may have been a factor, as far back as 1988 the government suspected that it wasn't the only one. Another possibility, with far more horrifying implications, was that BSE could be passed from a cow to her calves. Lacy had suggested as much in 1990 and was dismissed as ignorant and hysterical. However, by that time the government had already carried out top secret tests of precisely this theory.

By 1993 it was clear that it could happen, and eventually it emerged that it occurred in more than 10 per cent of cases where the mother was infected and nearly 5 per cent where she wasn't. Yet no-one officially admitted the fact until last year. What that means is that animal protein in cattle feed isn't the only source of BSE; and it raises the possibility that infected humans could pass it on to their offspring.

But the book is remarkably free from "I told you so". He does allow himself a pat on the back when the Government sets up the Food Standards Agency, promises more openness about public health issues and sets up an enquiry to investigate the whole sorry affair - all things he had been agitating for for years.

What the book does show clearly is that BSE was a disaster waiting to happen. The food scares that first brought Lacey to prominence in the Eighties - salmonella and listeria - were dry runs for what happened later. In each case the instinctive response of the ministry was to deny, delay and ignore. Lacy used the media because there were no other channels open to him. Again, the cumulative detail is shocking.

For instance, it emerges that while Maff was denying that there was any problem with salmonella-infected flocks, it had already spent three years agonising over how much to tell the public about secret reports detailing the level of infection. Similarly, the dangers of both listeria and E.coli 0157 were known long before preventable outbreaks of infection killed dozens of people.

But it's all right now isn't it? Matters are certainly better, although the number of food poisoning cases continues to rise. Some safety standards have been tightened, and Labour's promises of more openness means that the kind of blatant evasions we saw under the Tories should be harder. But there is still the great unknown hanging over BSE. It obviously has infected humans and, although so far there are only officially 27 dead, for a number of reasons that may be a gross underestimate.

What no one knows is how many have been infected by this terrible disease. Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Lacey plumps for the grim figure of a 5 per cent death rate from CJD (the form BSE takes in humans) in the UK population within the next 10 years. He believes the decision not to institute a major slaughter programme in 1990 will turn out to be "the biggest disaster both in suffering and in hard cash that a British government has ever taken in peace time". Other experts believe he is being wildly alarmist.

The truth is that we just don't know because there has not been the sort of concentrated research campaign into BSE that was brought to bear on the comparable crisis of Aids. There is not an inkling of a cure, we don't know how BSE is transmitted, and the only way of telling whether animals or humans are infected is by a post-mortem or by taking a brain tissue sample when symptoms are well advanced.

One lesson from the book stands out. The food on our plates suddenly became more dangerous as a result of technological developments that changed the way our food was raised or prepared. Freezing, convenience foods and the microwave contributed to the earlier food-poisoning scares, while feeding animal protein to herbivores was an element in BSE. These all had unforeseen effects that allowed otherwise harmless microbes to colonise new territory - the human gut or brain.

Now genetic engineering promises to make equally wide-ranging changes in the nature of our foods, and it is also backed by very wealthy vested interests. Will anyone take notice of the watchdogs when they bark next time around, or will we have to wait until the children start dying?