Memo shows EU tried to cover up BSE scare

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Brussels may have been responsible for hushing up and even distorting early reports on the extent and implications of BSE in Britain to prevent just the sort of panic and market disruption seen in the past two months, French reports said yesterday.

The Journal du Dimanche reported that an internal European Commission note, dated 10 October 1990, had spoken of the need to "minimise the BSE affair by using disinformation". The note, reportedly issued by the Commission's consumer services department, said that the best response to inquiries was to say: "The press has a tendency to exaggerate."

It appears that the note has seen the light of day already - it was published in February 1991 in the French consumer monthly, Que Choisir? Now, however, the note is being cited as evidence by a French agricultural union which is bringing a law suit against the European Commission in connection with farmers' losses as a result of the current BSE scare.

The note, says the Journal du Dimanche, was part of minutes recording statements made by the European Commission's permanent veterinary committee, which had discussed BSE on 9 and 10 October. The note quotes an (unnamed) Commission representative at the meeting as saying that people should "show a cool attitude so as not to cause an adverse response on the market", that "there should be no more talk of BSE".

The representative was also quoted as saying: "We will ask the UK not to publish the results of its research."

The Journal du Dimanche contacted the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, to ask what he knew about this advice. Mr Delors has insisted throughout the latest crisis that Brussels acted responsibly and in particular that it had no power to ban or regulate British animal feed exports when Britain banned potentially harmful animal feed for domestic consumption.

Mr Delors, however, said he knew nothing about the 1990 note. "Hundreds of pieces of paper circulated in the machine,' he said", and there was always a possibility that a junior official might exceed his authority. He stressed, however, that notes and minutes of this sort "do not constitute either a decision or an official position of the European Commission".