BSE: pets took priority over people

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The Independent Online
TORY GOVERNMENT health officials opposed attempts to ban BSE- infected material from the human food chain at the same time that pet- food manufacturers were planning to prohibit similar offal from dog and cat meat.

Evidence to be submitted to the BSE Inquiry next month will show that it was a only crucial meeting between the pet-food industry and officials from the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) that finally convinced the government to give the human food chain the same safeguards as pet food.

Statements to the inquiry from senior civil servants reveal that the Department of Health objected to the introduction of a ban on specified bovine offal (SBO) because of the ''adverse publicity'' it would cause.

Experts now agree that the SBO ban was the single most important government measure to limit the amount of highly infected material entering the human food chain. Dr Jeremy Metters, deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health, has already told the inquiry that there was a departmental policy in 1989 to oppose an SBO ban, supported by Sir Donald Acheson, the chief medical officer.

''It was not at that stage the Department of Health's line and there was a down side to it, because it [the ban] would have drawn attention to the problem of pharmaceuticals,'' Dr Metters said.

The pharmaceuticals problem referred to concern raised by a committee of experts, led by Sir Richard Southwood, the Oxford zoologist whose report in February 1989 highlighted the risk of taking medicines made with bovine tissues.

The Southwood committee had not mentioned an SBO ban in its report - although it did deal with a limited ban on using offal in baby food - and this was widely seen as support for the idea that a universal ban was not necessary.

Sir Richard, however, said this weekend that it was never the intention of his committee to oppose a ban on SBO material. ''It was left as an open question,'' he said.

However, Dr Hilary Pickles, then a senior civil servant in the health department with special responsibility for BSE, told the inquiry that an SBO ban was a measure ''over and above'' what the department's own advisers had recommended.

''I think the Department of Health's line was that we supported the judgement of the Southwood Working Party report,'' she said. ''It was not strictly necessary.''

However, as evidence to the BSE Inquiry will show, Maff officials had meetings with representatives of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association in May 1989 where it was made clear that the pet-food industry was concerned about using SBO material.

Following this meeting, John MacGregor, the then agriculture minister, had become convinced that there was a need to introduce a similar SBO ban to protect the human food chain. One industry insider said: ''The meeting galvanised Maff to take action. Here was the pet-food manufacturers taking this seriously.''

On 7 June, Mr MacGregor summoned Dr Pickles and Dr Metters to a meeting in Whitehall where he said that he wanted to call for a full SBO ban despite the health department's continuing objections.

A week later, on 13 June, the government announced that it intended to ban bovine offal from human food. Three days after that, the pet food industry said it would would also impose a voluntary ban on SBO material in cat and dog meat - but unlike the human food ban, which had to go to consultation and did not come into effect until November 1989, the pet food ban was immediate.

The Department of Health and Maff declined to comment this weekend, citing the continuing nature of the BSE Inquiry. Dr Pickles and Dr Metters were both unavailable.