Mad cow disease: Ministers disagreed on the 'moral obligations' towards Third World

Eight years after Britain banned the sale of potentially BSE-infected feed to farmers in this country, the product was still being exported.

Eight years after Britain banned the sale of potentially BSE-infected feed to farmers in this country, the product was still being exported.

South Africa, where the first non-European case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) was reported at the weekend, imported some of the British animal feed exported while it was banned here.

The South African victim, Ronel Eckard, 35, who died in July, appears to have picked up the disease from eating hamburgers. She had never travelled abroad. Suspicion must now centre on whether the meat was infected with BSE, or mad cow disease, from contaminated British feed exports.

Britain imposed a ban on using meat and bone meal (MBM) made from slaughtered cows in cattle feed in July 1988. Three months earlier government animal health experts had realised that feed made from bovine MBM was responsible for the rapid spread of BSE in Britain. But for eight more years contaminated feed was exported worldwide with what critics say was woefully inadequate warnings on the product.

Before the BSE crisis about 350,000 tons of MBM feed was sold in Britain a year, and relatively little was exported. After the ban the UK government did inform the EU, but there was a surge in exports to Europe. Then, as European states - informed of the danger - banned British feed, exporters opened up new markets, including North America, the Middle East and Asia.

Dr Stephen Dealler, a microbiologist and BSE expert, said: "It was a terrible mistake... Look at the controls they are now trying to apply to stop BSE in France and other EU countries. It is going to be much harder in African and Middle Eastern countries."

Evidence to the British BSE inquiry headed by Lord Phillips shows that British officials washed their hands of moral responsibility over the dangers of MBM spreading BSE to infection-free countries, the approach was to inform international bodies, leaving it to member states to decide whether to import UK feed and prevent it being fed to cattle.

British shipments reached 30,000 tons a year in 1993 and went on until 1996, when an EU directive banned all UK exports. The feed went to countries including Czech Republic, Nigeria, Thailand, South Africa, Kenya, Turkey, Indonesia, Hungary, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Sri Lanka.

The Phillips inquiry reveals astonishing memos between British officials over the sale of MBM. In the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff), John Gummer, then an Agriculture minister, is reported in minutes as having said the UK had a "moral obligation to ensure that importing countries were aware we did not permit the feeding of these products to ruminants".

Alistair Cruickshank, a Maff civil servant, however, told the inquiry: "At the meeting of 14 April 1988, [John] MacGregor [then Minister of Agriculture] gave no indication he agreed with Gummer's suggestion."

In a letter dated 15 June 1989, Keith Meldrum, the chief veterinary officer, wrote to the president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, saying: "We have discussed by telephone why we would not wish to interfere with the export of meat and bone meal from this country even if we had the powers to do so. As you will appreciate we do not consider it morally indefensible to export meat and bone to other countries since it may be used for feeding to pigs and poultry... We have ensured that all countries of the world have been informed of our problems, not only through the publication of articles, but by statements at [international] meetings."

It was not until summer 1989 that using the carcasses of animals infected with BSE to make MBM was banned.

In January 1990, Sir Donald Acheson, the chief medical officer, wrote to Mr Meldrum warning him of the dangers. "We should take steps to prevent these UK products being fed to ruminants in other countries. Unless such action is taken, the difficult problems we have faced with BSE may well occur in other countries."

In February 1990, Dr Hilary Pickles, a senior official in the Department of Health, wrote to the chief medical officer claiming that the Government's behaviour was not "responsible".