The unhappy legacy of a beef encounter

'Was a predisposition towards their own people a psychological factor in the Tories' behaviour over BSE?'

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So it wasn't like in
Jaws. Or
Volcano, or any of those movies where the mayor wilfully ignores the sheriff's warnings of impending attack by man-eating shark or the seismologist's unfashionable concern about a possible eruption - because he doesn't want to scare the rich tourists away or mess up a lucrative real-estate deal. Lord Phillips, it seems, in his 16-volume report on the BSE crisis, exonerates past Conservative ministers and past civil servants of the charge of cynically putting life at risk because of their desire to protect British agriculture.

So it wasn't like in Jaws. Or Volcano, or any of those movies where the mayor wilfully ignores the sheriff's warnings of impending attack by man-eating shark or the seismologist's unfashionable concern about a possible eruption - because he doesn't want to scare the rich tourists away or mess up a lucrative real-estate deal. Lord Phillips, it seems, in his 16-volume report on the BSE crisis, exonerates past Conservative ministers and past civil servants of the charge of cynically putting life at risk because of their desire to protect British agriculture.

These were not wicked men and women acting in bad faith, apparently, but people who made a series of very human mistakes that we all should learn from. Sighs of relief stage right. In the words of John Major, "there are no scapegoats or villains emerging from this report."

I don't want to mislead you: I have not read the full text, or anything more than the summary and some original submissions. So I am unable categorically to conclude that John Selwyn Gummer, John MacGregor, chief medical officer Donald Acheson and others are perfectly safe from censure. But it does seem, from what Phillips was saying yesterday at his press conference, that it was systemic biases that were to blame for the failure of ministers and officials to give a true picture of the dangers lurking in the British food-chain in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

I recall a former Archbishop of York once elegantly suggesting to a television presenter (when pressed on doctrinal matters), that he often wondered whether the lust for certainty was not itself a sin. It's possible that it was the very human desire to appease that public lust for certainty that impelled the pious Mr Gummer in 1990, at the behest of a tabloid newspaper, to feed his daughter Cordelia (who - by now - has probably gone through Reganite and Gonerilesque feelings towards her father) with that iconic beefburger.

Any of us might have done it. Or, as the report says: "Mr Gummer was faced with choosing between two unattractive alternatives. It may seem with hindsight that, caught in a no-win situation, he chose the wrong option, but it is not a matter for which he ought to be criticised."

Really? By the time Cordelia became the meat industry's Shirley Temple, BSE had been around and diagnosed for about five years. Most scientists had concluded that the disease did not jump species and - though some cattle needed to be slaughtered to eradicate BSE - the steps required to be taken in slaughterhouses at the end of the Eighties were highly precautionary. The reason for the scientific confidence was not that they had proof that BSE could not vault the species hurdle, but that there was simply "no evidence" that it actually did so.

In May 1990 the discovery by Bristol University that cats injected with BSE could subsequently become infected, meant that - at last - there was indeed evidence of species jumping. It was, says Phillips, a "bombshell". On 13 May a professor of clinical microbiology at Leeds University, Robert Lacey, formerly a government health advisor, told The Sunday Times that the risks of humans catching mad cow disease meant that, "people should not eat beef until half... the herds in Britain have been destroyed". Yet the then chief vet, Robert Meldrum, still insisted to Mr Gummer that there was no connection between what the cat had, and what the cows suffered from.

Two days later Gummer's ministry sent out a press release headed "British Beef is Safe: Gummer". The release was the text of a written answer to a Parliamentary Question from a young Conservative MP. Usually, in these circumstances when governments have something to announce, the MP is asked by the Whips if he or she would mind tabling this or that question. In this instance this particular MP elicited the answer that British beef was "perfectly safe to eat".

But in the detail a slightly different story was being told. "Experts," said Mr Gummer, had "concluded that the risk to humans is remote." Is it really just hindsight that suggests the gap between the certainty of "perfectly safe" and the qualification of the risk being "remote"?

At any rate, Mr Gummer emphasised the action taken to minimise the remote risk, including slaughtering affected cattle "so that no part can enter the human food chain", removing offal and banning their use. "These actions," said Gummer, "fully protect the public from what is a remote and theoretical risk." He concluded, "Local education authorities can therefore continue to provide beef in school meals with complete confidence." Shortly after that, Cordelia was pressed into service.

Phillips is clear that - at this point - the public was misled, because the overt message of certainty went beyond the scientific evidence. He thinks this happened, not because agricultural interests were put ahead of those of consumers, but because the Government weighed the balance between the remote risk and the palpable damage to the beef industry of admitting any doubt. The objective of government, Phillips concludes, was to "sedate the public". But there was nothing malign about it.

Though I am no fan of blame culture, I wonder whether Phillips and his lay panel have quite grasped the politics of agriculture. For years the farmers have been a key Tory constituency and the rural seats (with Celtic exceptions) have constituted the Conservative heartlands. I sat in the press gallery of the Commons at the time that Stephen Dorrell announced in 1996 that there probably was a link between new variant CJD and BSE. I heard the farming Tories blame everyone else for the crisis: the EU, the French, Harriet Harman (then shadow Health Secretary). I saw John Major declare the "beef war" over semen and tallow. He seemed able to identify plenty of villains and scapegoats then. Denial: that's what they were in, denial.

What I'm saying is that Phillips should have considered whether a political predisposition towards their own followers was not a psychological factor in how the Conservatives behaved over BSE. They, of course, would deny it. Yesterday Tim Yeo, the agreeable Tory agriculture spokesman prostrated himself before the Commons on behalf of his party. "I am truly sorry for what has happened and I apologise," he said.

This was not always the Tory view before the Phillips Commission was set up. During the 1997 election campaign, an intrepid New Statesman reporter went canvassing with William Hague. One of his party workers came out of a shop with bad news. "The butcher is not voting for you this time," she says. "Why not?" Hague seems surprised. "BSE," she says. "Not my fault," he tells her.

And here is William Hague speaking to the National Farmers Union this year. "We have got to stop our farmers being crushed by the weight of pointless, ill-conceived, ill-thought out, badly designed, over-long, gold-plated, unnecessary and expensive government regulation." He was applauded.

Just one more point. The name of the young MP who asked Gummer the question in the wake of the "cat with BSE" sensation, was - of course - William Hague.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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