BSE inquiry told of ministry error

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The Independent Online
MOVES TO introduce a computerised registry of British cattle seven years ago were blocked by the Ministry of Agriculture, even though it could have shortened the BSE epidemic and helped to track diseased cattle, a former civil servant disclosed yesterday.

Paul Bunyan, who was chief scientific adviser at the ministry, told the BSE inquiry in London that in February 1991 he backed moves to introduce a National Cattle Data Centre, which would have recorded cattle ancestry, milk yields and any genetic evaluation.

Such a system would have simplified the problem of finding the calves of cattle that subsequently developed "mad cow disease". Tracking down such cattle has been a key aim of the culling procedures suggested to curb BSE. But without computerised records, it is a hit-and-miss affair.

Computer records would also have helped to reduce fraud claimed on milk subsidies, and possibly improved the cattle stock through genetic data - which might also have helped scientists studying BSE.

The ministry rejected the idea despite a parallel recommendation from the Wilson committee - set up earlier that year by the Milk Marketing Board and the National Cattle Breeders Association.

"The approach was subsequently adopted in Northern Ireland, with demonstrable recent benefit to their export trade," Mr Bunyan told the inquiry. The Ulster system played a key part in winning the confidence of the European Union that the province was BSE-free earlier this year, because it showed that the calves of BSE-infected cows had been culled.

The inquiry is expected to continue until next March, with a report by its chairman, Lord Justice Phillips, to be delivered in June 1999.