Ministry ignored `mad cow' warnings

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A SENIOR scientist's warning in 1987 that "mad cow disease" could destroy the British meat industry went unheeded amid the politicisation and short-term attitudes then taking over the Civil Service.

Dr Alan Dickinson told the Bovine Spongiform Encephalosophy Inquiry yesterday that millions of pounds were wasted and the disease was allowed to spread unchecked because officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) waited too long for evidence rather than consulting qualified scientists.

Dr Dickinson was at the time one of the few British experts in BSE-like diseases such as scrapie, which affects sheep, and was conducting research in the area when BSE was first identified late in 1986.

He told the inquiry that his own view on the emergence of BSE - by mid- 1987 there had only been about 100 confirmed cases - was that "if it was not under the control of the most experienced people in the world on this subject, it would quickly spin out of control". In August 1987 he told a colleague: "If this BSE issue is not handled properly it will destroy the meat industry."

Like a number of other scientists who have given evidence, Dr Dickinson was highly critical of the radical changes to scientific funding which took place under the Thatcher administration. Research funding was cut, and short-term contracts replaced many jobs. Scientists were told they had to be "accountable" to sponsoring departments in government.

Dr Dickinson witnessed many of these changes, having been a founder director in 1981 of the Neuropathogenesis Unit (NPU) in Edinburgh. He resigned from it in 1987 because of the "shambles" that had blighted investigation into diseases such as BSE. "The problem stemmed from aspects of the administrative culture dominating veterinary issues and from the progressive weakening of the autonomy of British science," he told the inquiry.

The NPU should have been the centre for research in BSE and related diseases in Britain, but in the 1980s it lacked sufficient funds to investigate properly. Instead, other laboratories received shorter contracts. "There is wide agreement that very little of value has emerged from inexperienced labs given BSE funding," Dr Dickinson said.

Changes in the management of research meant short-term funding was given to long-term projects.

Dr Dickinson described a battle between research councils and government ministries over the reorganisation of scientific research in the 1980s, while the NPU remained underfunded.

In a statement to the inquiry, he said: "At this time the feeling was widespread that the slow politicisation of research councils was leaving a smaller pot of research funds from which MAFF had first call."

The NPU has produced one key result on BSE and its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). A researcher there recently demonstrated that BSE and "new variant" CJD, which has so far killed 25 Britons, are interlinked.

The pounds 500m British beef export industry collapsed in 1996 when the European Commission imposed a worldwide ban, following the British government's announcement of a link between BSE and v-CJD. The crisis is estimated to have cost taxpayers nearly pounds 4bn, and the commission has only this week recommended ending the ban.

The inquiry continues.