Medical chief `forced to say beef was safe'

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THE GOVERNMENT'S most senior medical advisor at the height of the BSE epidemic claimed yesterday that he was forced to make statements about the safety of British beef.

Sir Donald Acheson, chief medical officer at the Department of Health between 1983 and 1991, said he was pressurised into saying that beef could be eaten safely by everyone.

In written evidence to the BSE inquiry, Sir John detailed the tension between the health department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) which erupted over the risks to humans from BSE in cattle.

He accused Maff of secrecy in failing to inform him about the BSE outbreak and the crucial scientific research that could have a bearing on its potential transmission to humans.

Sir Donald explained how he came under pressure in May 1990 to say that British beef was safe following the announcement that a cat had been diagnosed with a BSE-like condition. He wanted to wait a day for a meeting of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee but was told that a statement had to be issued immediately saying that British beef was safe. "I find it impossible to reconstruct the considerations which led to the wording of my own contribution, in particular why I chose to follow Maff in the use of the word `safely' rather than `with confidence' as had been the phrase agreed [the day before]," Sir Donald said.

In retrospect it would have been preferable to introduce "an element of uncertainty due to incomplete knowledge" about BSE and the risks to humans, he added.

"The aftermath of the issuing of my public statement in May 1990 was fraught. The public in general seemed to accept the advice I had given but not all of my public health colleagues did ... it was several years after the events that I became aware that for some people the word `safe' without qualification means zero risk," he said.

Sir Donald said Maff had tried to pressurise him: "A junior minister sent for me and put intense pressure on me to make a less carefully qualified statement about the safety of eggs. Bearing in mind that there were several thousand cases of food poisoning annually due to infected eggs and some deaths, I was not prepared to do this."

Sir Donald detailed several areas of tension with Maff over BSE, such as the delay in telling him about the cattle epidemic for at least six months after Maff became aware that it had implications for human health.

He also criticised Maff in delaying the publication of evidence which linked BSE with infected cattle feed and the practice of continuing to export the feed despite it being banned at home. The Department of Health was also not informed about an important international scientific meeting about BSE, he added.