Open Eye: Beef: too many stakeholders?

Do we need a better way of managing risks to health and life? As the enquiry into the government's handling of the BSE enquiry focuses on what went wrong, an OU academic questions whether the lessons of BSE have been taken on board.
A truism we often hear is, 'You can't put a value on human life'. Except it is not true, according to Dr Paul Anand, an OU economist with an interest in the theory of risk: "We're putting values to human life all the time."

From air pollution to MMR vaccination to climate change, assessing risks and making decisions about what's acceptable and what's not, has become a hot topic in most areas of public life.

Paul recently helped organise a major conference on risk management which has attracted contributors from around the world. While risk management and decision analysis is a theory-laden discipline, Paul's latest research, presented at the conference, shows how it can be applied in practice, in a study of the government's handling of the BSE crisis, in the crucial period 1989 to 1994.

His analysis not only identifies weaknesses but, more worryingly, suggests that the lessons of the BSE crisis have not been learnt. With big decisions looming over GM food, that's not good news.

Paul sums up the government's approach to BSE as the 'ostrich' model of crisis management. "Some of the actions they took were actually pretty good - they stripped out infected material from the food chain, for example. But in my view government didn't have a clear view of the decision-making framework that was appropriate to this situation."

One fault was to rely too much on scientific research, which in this case was not capable of removing all the uncertainty. Lack of transparency in debate and decision-making, and a failure to communicate openly with the media and the public, were also indicated.

"Natural scientists are good at assessing likelihoods, but not very good at risks and benefits. Risk management means looking at all the risks and all the benefits, and integrating those with your assessment of the likelihoods," says Paul.

"It may seem natural to call for more accurate forecasts but we believe that, from a decision analysis viewpoint, the government should, instead, be devoting attention to ways of establishing a shared understanding and acceptance of the different possible scenarios among key players, the Press included."

Does he see any evidence that government and its agencies have learned anything from the past - or from the academics? Yes, he says:

"There have been some changes. Communications are now being taken a lot more seriously. A well-known decision theorist, Peter Bennett, is now in the Department of Health and writing briefing guidance on risk communication.

"But there is still a need to take our decision theory seriously. They need a broader model of risk assessment and this doesn't seem to be happening. The message is that decision analysis, and social science in general, can play a much greater role in government thinking than is currently the case in the UK."

Paul is not the only analyst to point out that a key player in the BSE story, the Ministry of Agriculture, had (and still has) an unstated bias towards the producers' interests, as opposed to consumers'.

But replacing it by a Food Standards Authority, as government is proposing, could merely replace one bias by another unless the whole decision-making process was improved. "The new authority must take account of all the different concerns of the legitimate stakeholders."

When it comes to GM foods, risk management has to take the whole world into account, he says.

"There is no point in the UK's saying no to GM foods while the corn belt in the USA is flooding the world with them. Eventually what will happen is our farmers won't be able to sell anything because the cheaper GM foods will take over the market. If there is regulation it has to take place on a global scale."

Hiding the decision - deciding not to ban sales of UK beef - was just as much of a decision as banning it.

By maintaining the status quo, government tried to avoid any debate about the agenda on which its decision was based - that its prime concern was to maintain confidence in the beef industry and avoid a market collapse.

Downplaying the problem was aimed at buying confidence in the short term, but meant people were unprepared for worse news.

And when it came, says Paul, the government's earlier reactions appeared careless and complacent. Instead of producing optimistic forecasts it would have been better to acknowledge publicly the real uncertainty of the available scientific information.

Because of poor information retrieval systems, substantial amounts of government-funded scientific information were not made available to government information officers. There were sometimes inconsistencies between what ministers and other government officials were saying. Government departments need to develop rapid information retrieval systems, says Paul.

There was not even any evidence of a communications strategy, beyond repeating the message that British beef was safe. So the media filled the vacuum with information from other sources, sometimes ill-informed ones.