Minister tells of BSE `thunderbolt'

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The Independent Online
THE FORMER agriculture minister William Waldegrave said yesterday that news of the link between mad cow disease, or BSE, and "new variant" CJD in humans, was "a thunderbolt" and "the worst moment" of his political career.

Yet he and other former Tory agriculture ministers, Angela Browning and Earl Howe, insisted to the BSE Inquiry that their prime interest had always been public health rather than that of the farming industry - and that the two were not mutually antagonistic.

"It's false to suggest there's a dichotomy between human health and protecting the farming industry," said Mr Waldegrave. "As we have seen after this disaster, the best way of protecting the farming industry was being tough on the human health issues."

As the minister at the top of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) in 1995 and 1996, and before that as a minister in the Department of Health, he had had "scares" when it seemed that the Government's repeated insistence that BSE could not pass to humans would turn out to be false.

But ministers had no contingency plans for what to do if that happened, because the problem seemed neither large enough to qualify as a civil disaster - nor small enough to be easily solved by busy civil servants. The result was that no plans were made, despite mounting evidence that slaughterhouses were continuing to let potentially infected material pass into food.

"I was scared at one point because of the issue of CJD in farmers," Mr Waldegrave said, referring to November 1995 when a fourth case of "classic" CJD - which still has no known cause - was discovered in a British farmer. However, he was "very firmly advised" the case was a statistical fluke which did not herald an epidemic.

But in March 1996, a memo arrived detailing a link between BSE and nv-CJD. "This was the biggest emergency of my political career, the most difficult and important crisis which I have ever dealt with. There were a number of ways in one's nightmares one could have imagined this happening.

"But all through my period at the Ministry of Agriculture, it felt the opposite. It felt like the epidemic was disappearing slowly from animals, it was all turning out - thank God - as predicted. There was the flurry of alarm over the farmers, which went away. Then the thunderbolt came."

Agriculture ministers also came under repeated pressure from the animal feedstuff companies to ease rules banning the recycling of cattle in animal feed. One delegation from the Agricultural Suppliers' Association suggested that the Government should just redefine recycled cattle remains as "safe" for use - despite the fact that such products first led to the BSE epidemic.

Of his role at the Department of Health, from 1990 to 1992, he defended saying then that beef was safe to eat. "If you want to know if it's safe to fly on an airplane, and as a minister I reply that it's been certified as airworthy, I'm then going to be asked `Would you fly in it?' And the answer is yes, I would ... But if you say it's safe, you aren't saying there's no risk there."