Food giant may sue BBC in beef scare

Helpline linked Bovril to BSE
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The Independent Online
The BBC may face legal action by the giant US corporation which produces Bovril, after a radio helpline advised callers concerned about BSE - mad cow disease - to avoid meat pies, sausages, beefburgers and beef stock.

The company, CPC, will today consider whether to sue the BBC. It said Bovril, which contains extract of boiled bones and carcasses, is produced from cattle raised in Argentina.

Officials at the Meat and Livestock Commission said beef sales had fallen by five per cent last month, compared with last year, and blamed fears that mad cow disease could be transmitted to humans.

Tests have been carried out after the death of a patient in Carlisle to establish if the cause could be Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the equivalent of mad cow disease in humans. The Director of Public Health for North Cumbria Health Authority said the patient died in the Cumberland Infirmary recently. The Government insists there is no evidence that BSE can be transmitted from cattle to humans.

Ian Ramsay, managing director of CPC UK Limited, accused the BBC helpline of "complete and utter irresponsibility", and lodged a complaint with the BBC's director-general, John Birt. Mr Ramsay said there was "categorically never" any problem with its product. CPC said that "Bovril beef drink and stock products do not contain any of the materials that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has banned. The beef product in any case is not of British origin. The BBC did not consult us on this matter."

Junior health minister Angela Browning told the BBC she was "very concerned" about the helpline's advice, which she says was given to members of her department when they phoned in after she appeared on the You and Yours programme last Friday. "In one of the answers, one of my officials was told quite categorically that certain meat products were suspect, and indeed a branded name of a product was also included ... I am very concerned that the consumer is being given this sort of advice by the BBC," she said.

The BBC said workers on the helpline, operated by an external company, were told to tell callers there was a debate on BSE, and the advice of the Government's chief medical officer was that beef products were safe, although some scientists believed there might be a risk.

A BBC spokeswoman said: "There was one incident when one operator mistakenly used a brand name, Bovril, intending to mean the more generic term stock cubes as the kind of beef products some scientists believe may carry some risks." But the spokeswoman added that operators of helplines were always briefed not to use trade names. "We are investigating the situation," she said.

Scientists are increasingly critical of the Government's position. Colin Blakemore, the eminent neurophysiologist at Oxford University, said recent cases of the human equivalent of BSE in Britain "most definitely do not support [Health Secretary] Stephen Dorrell's statement earlier this week that there is 'no conceivable risk' from eating beef." Shaun Heaphy, a senior research fellow at Leicester University, said: "There is a grand experiment going on in Britain with BSE, with us as the laboratory animals..." Both scientists say they have given up eating beef.

The Meat and Livestock Commission blamed public fears over BSE for part of the slide in beef sales, which follows a few months of marginal growth in the beef market.

Nevertheless, ministers went on the offensive yesterday to bolster beef's public image. Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg said it was "absolutely safe" to eat and that parents should be encouraging children to eat it, while his Welsh counterpart Gwilym Jones, told Parliament: "I am more than content to go on eating beef on a regular basis." He repeated that there was no scientific evidence of a link between BSE and its human equivalent.

Colin Blakemore, page 18