THE BSE RISK: MPs served diet of mad cow and beef-burgher Englishmen

Click to follow
The Independent Online
From above, the government benches, covered in green leather, could be said to resemble a verdant pasture - a grassy meadow somewhere in the English countryside. And yesterday that meadow was full of some pretty unhappy beasts. Those who represent the agricultural interests of the nation had gathered to hear the worst.

The importance of the event was emphasised by the turnout of ministers along the hedgerow at the front. They were all there: Hezza, the secretaries of state for Scotland and Wales, Chairman Mawhinney and a dozen more, squashed like farm animals on the Continent.

From their midst arose the pencil frame of Stephen Dorrell, Health Secretary, to make his statement about mad cow disease and its possible connection with an appalling human illness, CJD. Yes, it did now seem possible to the scientific advisory group on BSE that some ill-effects might have been caused by beef eaten before 1989. So new recommendations were being made. Behind him listening animals were shifting nervously from hoof to hoof.

But it wasn't the landed element alone that was concerning Mr Dorrell. The Ghost of Gummer was at his elbow. This was the Gummer who, as Labour's Harriet Harman pointed out, had told Britons there was no evidence of a health-risk from beef - and then gone on publicly to force-feed tiny Cordelia Gummer on beefburgers.

Ms Harman's reference to this savoury incident raised a storm of animal noises from the beef-burghers in the Tory enclosure. One MP, Bernard Jenkin (whose wife has shares in Lord Rayleigh's Dairies and Farms) actually made mooing sounds. "Disgraceful," nickered Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman ("149 acre-farm in Norfolk").

One after another scions of dairies, owners of abattoirs and heirs to estates stood to express alarm at the damage that could now be suffered by the beef industry - with which they were not entirely disconnected. Harold Elletson ("small amount of agricultural land in Lancashire") asked Mr Dorrell to confirm that "children need a healthy and balanced diet which requires meat. And will he condemn extreme vegetarian anti-farming activists?"

No, Mr Dorrell had no opinion about vegetarians, which was sensible of him, since there are many more of them in the electorate than there are farmers. In fact Mr Dorrell had no opinions about anything, he said, having contracted them all out to scientific experts and advisory committees. "When I am asked whether something is safe," Dorrell replied to another point, "I answer that this is a scientific question, and that I cannot answer."

Now, this is a hard code to live by, especially if you are - as Mr Dorrell assured us he is - a parent of young children. When a toddler strays close to a pond, one does not usually stop to call a marine engineer.

Perhaps that was why it took two hours to discover whether Mr Dorrell would continue to eat beef. Presumably he had had to telephone a professor of nutritional science. Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, had no such problem - he had eaten steak the night before "with total confidence". I tried to imagine what it would be like to eat a meal without "total confidence". Then Nicholas Winterton revealed that he, his wife, his children and his six grandchildren would all eat beef together, and I understood perfectly.

Oh, and Parliament was told that the Chief Medical Officer had announced that he too would continue to eat the meat as "part of a varied and balanced diet". With greens, carbohydrates and lashings of anti-biotics, one guesses.