Secrecy blamed for inflaming beef crisis

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The Independent Online
Censorship and the silencing of government scientists contributed to the crisis over mad cow disease, public health experts claimed yesterday at a conference called to explore the lessons of the BSE affair for Britain's system of government.

One notable absentee from the day-long debate in London was anyone from the Ministry of Agriculture. Douglas Hogg's Department had been invited by Charter 88, the conference organisers, to send a representative, but had declined.

Andrew Puddephatt, director of Charter 88, campaigners for democratic reform, said the story of BSE was a story of 10 years of secrecy, of policy torn between two imperatives: "The protection of the farming industry on the one hand and the avoidance of the use of taxpayers' money on the other."

But the most damning evidence came from medical and public health professionals.

Dr Helen Grant, a retired neuropathologist, said Maff vets had refused to make use of a live urine test devised to detect animals infected with bovine spongiform enceph- alopathy and had "denigrated" the test whenever asked.

There is "officially" no live test, Dr Grant said, yet it had been used successfully on 14 out of 14 humans infected with the BSE-equivalent Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease.

In a paper to the conference Dr Grant said a government virologist who, in 1990, offered a test to diagnose the disease in sub-clinically affected animals going through abattoirs and into the food chain, had been ordered to stop his research work and was finally dismissed.

Dr Noel Olson, chairman of the UK Public Health Medicine Consultative Committee, said it was considered "exceptionally unlikely" that there would be a massive epidemic of the new variant CJD but it need never have happened at all if the "precautionary principle" had been the basis of government policy. Instead Maff had acted in pursuit of profitability and an inappropriate political desire for deregulation.

Calls for an end to Maff's conflict of interest as the regulator of farmers and food manufacturers and their representative were led by Gerard Callaghan from Belfast whose brother Maurice died from CJD last November. But there was also a warning against creating a food quango which was less accountable to Parliament and the public.

The only break from the consensus on Maff secrecy came from Ian Gardiner, NFU policy director, who said there was no shortage of information in the half-yearly reports though it might not be in a very useful form for the general public.

Mr Gardiner took particular exception to a suggestion by Mr Puddephatt in The Independent last Friday that people's lives were being put at risk as Maff tried to protect farmers. "I find that astonishing... as farmers need to ensure that their products reach our plates with total safety."