Politics: Ministers considering calls for inquiry into CJD links with mad cow disease

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A high-powered inquiry into the BSE epidemic, and the link to CJD in humans is being `actively considered' by ministers. Colin Brown says Labour MPs want a judicial inquiry for the families of the victims.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, is giving "active consideration" to growing cross-party demands for a full public inquiry into the BSE epidemic and the links to CJD in humans.

Families of the CJD victims are demanding a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of more than 20 people, mostly young, from suspected exposure to BSE-infected meat products or employment in the meat industry.

An inquiry could be highly controversial, reopening the wounds of the industry, and pointing to possible lapses by the last Tory government before admitting a link with humans had been established. Judy Mallaber, MP for Amber Valley, is among the Labour backbenchers pressing for an inquiry. One of her constituents became the latest victim of CJD to die in a case with a suspected link to BSE, and victims' parents are demanding a judicial inquiry.

Dr Cunningham confirmed in a letter to Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat MP, that an inquiry was being considered.

The call for an inquiry was stepped up by Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on agriculture, in a recent Commons debate on rural life. He was told by Angela Eagle, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary that an inquiry into the "BSE legacy ... is under active consideration".

A Whitehall source said the terms of reference for the inquiry were also under discussion, but did not rule out the possibility that it would investigate the criticism from some families that the public was kept in the dark about the threat from BSE-infected products until it was too late.

The last governmentinsisted that it alerted the public in March 1996, as soon as it was presented with medical evidence suggesting a possible link between the BSE and CJD in humans. That led to the widespread scare about eating undercooked beefburgers, and other beef products, with a fall in beef sales.

Mr Tyler, with a rural constituency in Cornwall North, said the scientific evidence on which ministers had been relying for their assurances to the public until March, 1996, had been inadequate. Until the rules were tightened up, conditions in abattoirs was also a "shambles", allowing possibly BSE- infected material into the food chain.

"There was scientific evidence that there was not a possibility of a transfer of BSE from animals to man. That evidence collapsed in March, last year, in a very dramatic way. That is an area of great concern. There is also the whole question of who was giving advice to ministers, and where were they getting it from? We need to know if it came from commercially- sponsored research or from the Government's own research establishments. There are questions about the integrity of the last government that need to be answered."

The National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, had investigated the way the cull of cattle was being handled to eradicate BSE from the British herd, and an inquiry should look into where the money went, he said.

Mr Tyler added that there were important lessons for food safety in Britain which the Government could learn from an inquiry into the handling of the BSE outbreak.

The Government is due shortly to unveil its White Paper on food safety, including the establishment of an independent food standards agency, promised in the Labour election manifesto, which said: "The pounds 3.5bn BSE crisis and the E.coli outbreak which resulted in serious loss of life, have made unanswerable the case for the independent agency we have proposed."