Government scientists researching how Britain would cope with a nuclear attack drew up secret plans to sell meat from animals injected with radioactive substances in laboratory tests.
Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture wanted to distribute to butchers the carcasses of sheep, pigs and cattle contaminated with nuclear isotopes up to 100 times the level considered safe for humans. The blueprint, placed before a secretive Ministry of Agriculture committee on the potential effects of a third world war, proposed circumventing nor-mal meat inspections to avoid "considerable public and political feeling".
Documents released at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, show scientists in 1955 wanted to find the level of radioactivity needed to make livestock unfit for consumption. The Department of Agricultural Science at the University of Nottingham proposed to inject animals in a research farm with radioactive isotopes of iodine, potassium and sodium.
Dr Hamish Robertson, the scientist in charge of the project, wrote to the Joint Committee on Biological Problems of Nuclear Physics to say the cost of the experiments would be "prohibitive" unless the subjects, in particular lambs, were sold on the retail market. The Ministry of Agriculture decided the animals would still be safe to eat as long as the dose of radiation was no more than 100 times that for a person working in an "official facility" such as a nuclear power station.
Officials calculated that once a period of time had elapsed the only part of the animal that should not be eaten was the thyroid gland, where the highest concentrations of radioactive substances would collect. A report presented to the ministry committee in February 1955 stated: "On the assumption that the thyroid is not normally eaten, and in view of the small fraction of the animal which would be consumed by a single human being and the possible intervening decay of the radioactivity, no hazard could be constituted."
The scientists, who proposed to use substances with a low half-life (the system used to measure the decline of radioactivity), were none the less aware of the outcry their plans might cause.
The documents, originally due for release in 1972 but held back by officials, said: "Considerable public and political feeling about the possible effects of radioactivity means that the ministry must be careful to avoid the appearance of countenancing the consumption of radioactive meat."
Minutes of a meeting added that officials could not rely on meat inspectors to clear the carcasses without full scientific proof that they did not pose a risk to public health. Instead, they drew up proposals for the ministry to run its own safety tests. The report said: "The Ministry will then endeavour to devise satisfactory arrangements for monitoring the animals from Dr Robertson's experiments before these are passed for human consumption."
The documents did not state whether the scheme was put into action. The University of Nottingham and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had no immediate record yesterday of what happened to the livestock in any experiment.Reuse content