Top scientist urges inquiry into BSE saga

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The new president of the British Association yesterday called for a full- scale judicial inquiry into the "disaster of BSE" during the past 10 years.

Colin Blakemore, a leading neuroscientist, told the association's Festival of Science, meeting in Leeds, that he believed any such inquiry should also set levels of compensation for the families of people who have died from the "new variant" of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (v-CJD), which the government acknowledged last year was probably caused by exposure to the infectious agent of BSE, or "mad cow disease".

Professor Blakemore, who holds the chair of physiology at Oxford University, now also represents scientists across the country in their efforts to communicate their work. He said he gave up eating beef in 1987 as soon as BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, became publicised because he had "recognised the possibility of a new disease".

He also blamed successive Tory administrations since 1985 for cutting back on government-funded science research which might have been able to spot BSE more quickly, and forecast more accurately whether it could pass to humans.

He said one problem was that scientists' opinions about the dangers posed by BSE were "channelled through a small number of mouths. I think sometimes, scientists were saying more what they thought government wanted to hear than what they felt".

Professor Blakemore said the only way to prevent that happening again when the new Food Standards Agency is split off from the Ministry of Agriculture would be to investigate the events of the past 10 years.

"It's time to look back to see what lessons can be learnt from the disaster of BSE," he said. "We need a judicial inquiry before the Food Standards Agency is set up, because we need a policy for compensation of victims, which requires a deeper understanding of the whole background of why this happened."

Professor Blakemore's call follows the publication on Thursday in New Statesman magazine of a letter also calling for a full inquiry into BSE, co-signed by 16 families of v-CJD victims and also Professor Hugh Pennington, who investigated the E.coli food-poisoning outbreak in Scotland last year.