Still crazy after all these years - about mad cow disease

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The Independent Online
When another twist in the BSE story breaks, you can bet James Erlichman won't be far away. Anne McHardy profiles a reporter with a consuming passion.

James Erlichman has worked obsessively for nine years to earn the tight-lipped mention made of him in the House of Commons last week, when the Environment Secretary, John Cunningham, was forced to tell MPs why the latest beef ban was announced first to journalists.

The imminent ban had been about to be revealed by the BBC TV consumer programme, The Really Useful Show, courtesy of a leak to Erlichman, its food expert, Dr Cunningham tartly said. His department, he added, was not the culprit.

Erlichman, a pugnacious 48-year-old whose accent and wise-cracking wit betray his New York origins, has consistently been the reporter to break twists of the "mad cow disease" story since 1988, when the links between BSE and CJD were first suspected. Last week he led the pack again.

The BSE story has travelled with Erlichman as he has moved from The Guardian to BBC radio, and now to TV. Never a man to smooth feathers he feels should be ruffled, Erlichman, who became The Guardian's consumer affairs correspondent in 1985, managed to annoy the paper's hierarchy thoroughly with his terrier- like determination to chase food-chain scandals.

On The Guardian's news desk - which wanted him to cover more obviously consumerist stories - he could provoke fury, in spite of the continuing exclusives he broke on BSE from 1988 to 1995. He was sacked from consumer affairs on Budget Day 1994 and offered a general reporting job, but told he could cover consumer affairs part time. Five months later he was offered the post back, but by then he was negotiating with the BBC, where Huw Marks hired him to help revamp the ageing radio consumer programme, You and Yours.

In mid-1996 Erlichman discovered that infected offal, although officially banned from animal food, was still in the abattoirs. In an interview for You and Yours, the Government's chief medical adviser, Sir Keith Meldrum, admitted that the offal was still "leaking" into animal feed.

A year later, Erlichman moved on again with Marks as a backroom organiser to launch BBC1's The Really Useful Show. But Erlichman, put out at Marks' refusal to put him on camera, moved to Channel 4's Feast, as the programme's ghoul at the table. Feast proved to Marks that Erlichman could indeed survive the camera - so he invited him back to The Really Useful Show.

Erlichman attributes his fascination with food to his mother, who was, he says, "a feisty woman, from a poor farming family, who raised me interested in nutrition". The death of his only sister, Pamela Jane, when she was seven and he six, after a faulty vial of an early polio vaccine gave her the disease, was as important, some friends think, in making him fanatical about drug company research.

When he first wrote about BSE as a human health story in 1988, it was thanks to the sort of quirk that can shunt prolonged investigations out of reporters' notebooks and into the headlines.

A doctor rang The Guardian to offer an interview about research he had just written up for The Lancet, indicating that BSE could transmit to humans. As Erlichman waited for the doctor to arrive, he checked his byline, T.J Holt, in a medical directory. He could find no T.J Holt. When the doctor arrived he looked to Erlichman like "a pimply teenager". The "teenager", who turned to be older than his looks, was indeed a doctor, but too newly qualified to be in the directory.

The story, however, prompted interest from radical scientists researching BSE who were bedevilled by the Tory government's determination, which Erlichman describes as "criminal", to deny the risk because of fears for the beef industry.

He already had contacts with the scientists, principally Professor Richard Lacey, then at Leeds Hospital, because they had been his sources for earlier stories linking intensive farming to listeria and salmonella.

In 1989, Erlichman, still with The Guardian, broke the next round of BSE stories, revealing that the government, for all its public denials, had been sufficiently worried about human infection to set up an investigatory committee.

The stories cemented Erlichman's relationships with the scientists, including Professor Lacey's deputy; Professor Bernard Tomlinson, who was the only source to go public for the You and Yours story; and Dr Helen Grant, the Charing Cross Hospital brain disease specialist, who made first contact with Erlichman, writing to him after she read a Guardian story.

Erlichman has worked hard - as any specialist journalist might - to maintain his links with the scientists, but they have been as anxious as he to inform the public, and have often used him as a conduit. Last week's story was left on his answer phone.

The BSE story grips public attention, and Erlichman's total commitment, relieved only by his ability to laugh at himself when he is most carried away, is, he acknowledges, as emotional as the public's because he has two children.

"In March 96, in the melt down on the day of the You and Yours story, I felt horrible. On the one hand, I was elated that I hadn't been wasting people's time, burrowing away on a dead story. But then I felt I could not shout victory. I have interviewed families whose children have died."

He and the story will remain, a symbiosis. There is nothing in his nature or nurture to allow him to let it go. The only comfort for Dr Cunningham is that Erlichman thinks he plays cleaner than his Tory predecessors. "They left us eating beef for 15 months knowing cattle brain infected cattle. This government is being criticised for acting too fast, but this is better.

"I went to the ministry for confirmation and, to the ministry's credit, the chief press officer, given a direct question, gave a direct answer."

His delight in having shifted history even a little, could hardly be more transparent.

The author was night news editor of The Guardian from 1981 to 1994.