A ministry due for slaughter

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This week sees the first anniversary of the Government's belated admission that BSE in beef was likely to have given people CJD. A year on, ministers are reeling from a never-ending spate of revelations that lax food-safety policies have led to the spread of another killer disease. Ten days ago Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture, tried to explain away a suppressed and watered-down official report which showed that abattoirs were breeding grounds for an E coli strain which had already killed 20 people in Scotland. Conditions were improving, he told the House of Commons then, but had to return to the dispatch box last Tuesday to bluster his way through further leaks that ministers had been warned of declining hygiene standards by meat inspectors. Now we discover that the European Commission told ministers eight years ago to clean up the abattoirs, specifically mentioning the dangers from filthy cattle at the heart of the E coli row.

It is possible, but not easy, to summon up some pity for the embattled Mr Hogg. Granted, his arrogance and incompetence have enormously aggravated the BSE and E coli crises - and their international fallout - but he is nevertheless carrying the can for the complacency of a long chain of predecessors. In fact the food scandals have come to epitomise the ideological culture of successive Conservative governments - and the distrust the public has developed for them.

The two crises were born of the Thatcherite philosophy of deregulation and the Government's deep-seated contempt for the rules that did survive. Repeated warnings on the development of the crises were ignored; those who made the warnings were vilified. Essential research was cut, vital information suppressed, groundless reassurances trotted out, and barefaced lies told. Now the chickens - and the cows and (for all we know) the sheep and the pigs - are coming home to roost. The fact that they are doing so at the very time that Thatcherism is facing its most crucial electoral test suggests that maybe, after all, there is some justice in the world.

But it is important to recognise that the seeds of this bitter harvest were sown even before Thatcherism's free-market ideology nourished and fertilised them. The problem lies in the Ministry of Agriculture itself. At the heart of the ministry is a fundamentally destructive conflict of interest: it is supposed both to promote the food industry and to protect consumers. There are no prizes for working out which has received the higher priority. Most Ministers of Agriculture have been farmers themselves and senior civil servants speak in genuine awe of the "deference" the ministry shows to the National Farmers' Union. Not that the ministry has succeeded in even protecting its friends of late, as Dr Erik Millstone of Sussex University who has long been studying the ministry pointed out last Tuesday at a poorly attended but well-timed Scientists for Labour conference on food safety. Cattle farmers have little to thank the ministry for. Nor can the ministry boast of its record in protecting the countryside: traditional landscape and wildlife have been increasingly destroyed.

Last summer our environment correspondent, Geoffrey Lean, called for the abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture. He proposed that its countryside functions should go to the Department of the Environment; that promoting the food industry should be handed to the Department of Trade and Industry (where farmers could take their turn with car and computer manufacturers); and that food safety should be guarded by a separate body. Now this proposal is being widely canvassed, though not by either Labour or Conservative parties who still propose lesser reforms. Labour pledges a new independent Food Safety Agency. There is an encouraging precedent in the National Rivers Authority which did well in cleaning up Britain's polluted rivers and beaches before being merged into the Environment Agency last year. But that is not enough. Would such an agency be sufficiently accountable? Food is so vital to our health and well-being, and absorbs such a large proportion of everyone's spending, it requires nothing less than a separate Ministry of Food charged with protecting food safety - with its own cabinet minister, and transparent practices.

The Ministry of Agriculture, caked with the filth of decades of failure, should be carted off to the slaughterhouse: may it have a cleaner end than it offers the animals we eat.