Ex-minister denies abattoir negligence

STEPHEN DORRELL clashed with the chairman of the BSE Inquiry yesterday, over the failure of Tory ministers' to stress to abattoir staff the importance of rules banning BSE-infective tissues from food.

Mr Dorrell, the former secretary of state for health, said that obeying regulations was the abattoirs' statutory job, and that "I am not sure what more ministers can do."

But the inquiry panel pointed out that ministers and abattoirs each seemed to assume that the claims of the other guaranteed their own actions and statements - particularly ministers' repeated claims that beef was "safe to eat".

Mr Dorrell told the inquiry in south London that ministers had assumed that abattoirs were obeying the 1989 "specified offals ban" to remove tissues such as spinal cord from cattle carcasses: "My understanding that beef was safe had two foundations," he noted in a statement before the hearing. "The first... was that BSE was most unlikely to be transmissible to humans. The second was that even if it was.... the Government had already introduced the specified offals ban".

But Judge Sir Nicholas Phillips pointed out to Mr Dorrell that "as time went by, those who knew about the subject attached increasing importance to these regulations, because evidence raised question marks over the thesis that [BSE] is not transmissible [to humans]".

But, he said, no evidence from the industry or ministers had suggested any point where slaughterhouses were told that the risk of transmissibility might be higher, and that it was crucial that infected parts were removed.

June Bridgeman, another of the three-strong inquiry panel, told Mr Dorrell that other witnesses had said they regarded the abattoir regulations as "a mere precaution" because ministers had been assuring people that beef was safe to eat. Mr Dorrell replied: "The only basis which I felt free to say beef is safe is on the basis that these safeguards were in place and being enforced. Clearly if the safeguards were not being enforced, we could not have felt that beef was in the normal meaning of the word safe."

He added: "These were people under a statutory obligation to perform a duty and under those circumstances I am not sure what more ministers can do."

He said that in November 1995, where 17 cases where spinal cord had been found attached to the carcass after dressing, was "potentially serious".