Geoffrey Lean: From BSE to GM crops, our 'protectors' gamble with our health

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Just as those who are supposed to protect us were beginning to think that they had got away with gambling with our lives, the prospect of an epidemic of the human form of mad cow disease has re-emerged

Just as those who are supposed to protect us were beginning to think that they had got away with gambling with our lives, the prospect of an epidemic of the human form of mad cow disease has re-emerged

And it has done so just as they have been recklessly rolling the dice on our health again. For Friday's disclosure that some 4,000 young people may be unwittingly infected with vCJD, came just two days after the scrapping of a six-year moratorium on the approval of GM foods.

Up to last week, Whitehall believed that the epidemic caused by putting hundreds of thousands of cattle infected by BSE into the food chain was a damp squib. So far only 146 people have contracted vCJD, and the number of new cases has been falling.

Only a month ago, the Health Protection Agency reported that the incidence of the disease seemed to have peaked five years ago, in July 1999. Computer projections were predicting that the final death toll would be no more than 600.

This always looked more like wishful thinking than scientific judgement. The calculations were based on the numbers of cases that had already occurred. But diseases such as vCJD have long been known to strike after lengthy timelags.

The nearest human equivalent, kuru - contracted by cannibals eating their victims' brains - has an average 12-year incubation period. Human mad cow disease is expected to take some three times longer, because it has crossed the species barrier. Those who have contracted it so far always looked like an advance guard from a particularly genetically susceptible subset of the population.

And so it seems. Last week's study - backed by the Government and published in the Journal of Pathology - was the first to look at how many people might be unknowingly infected. Its examination of 16,703 removed tonsils and appendices, produced a "best estimate" of 3,808 Britons. It may be that not all those infected will go on to develop the disease. On the other hand, Professor John Collinge, head of the Medical Research Council's Prion Unit - who has done much groundbreaking work on the theory - believes the figure to be an underestimate.

But it seems clear that there will be a tragic bill to pay for the complacency and negligence of our governors in first failing to take action against BSE, and then neglecting to enforce such measures as it took - while loudly denying any risk. The official inquiry into the disease concluded that they set out to "sedate" the public.

That attitude persists. Last week's study should have begun years earlier. And it was on display when last week the European Commission, at Britain's urging, gave permission for a GM sweetcorn to be marketed across Europe, the first of 34 modified foods queuing for the green light.

David Byrne, the commissioner for health and consumer protection, said the sweetcorn - developed by Syngenta and incorporating an insecticide - had been approved "after the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world". He added: "Food safety is therefore not an issue."

If that is so, heaven help the world. For the testing has been revealed by official reports as ranging from the inadequate to the farcical.

A special evaluation by the Austrian government of the sweetcorn and 10 other GM foods concluded that tests for toxicity were "carried out rather sporadically", that vital safety information was "often fragmentary or missing" and that they were often declared safe on the basis of unverifiable assumptions.

And an official French report revealed that the tests for the sweetcorn were in fact carried out on a different kind of maize altogether. It warned of "unforeseen effects" on those who ate it. No one can say that GM foods are safe - or dangerous. Incredibly, adequate research has simply not been done.

But David Bowe MEP, Labour's environment spokesman in the European Parliament, was not to be restrained in his jubilation. "The crop has been tested," he said "The crop is perfectly safe. There is no harm to the environment. Let's suck it and see."

Sorry to interrupt, David, but isn't that what we did with BSE?