Ministers should have listened to the scaremongers over BSE

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The most significant lesson of the Phillips inquiry into BSE is that governments have to learn how to react to risks before dangers are conclusively established. The possibility that "mad cow" disease might be transmissible to humans was raised soon after it was first identified in cattle in 1986. For much too long, this was dismissed on the comforting basis that a similar disease affecting the brains of sheep, scrapie, had been around for 200 years without infecting humans. This was a reasonable hypothesis, but it was only a guess. Now we know it was wrong. At the time, the possibility that it might be wrong should have been investigated with far greater urgency than it was.

The most significant lesson of the Phillips inquiry into BSE is that governments have to learn how to react to risks before dangers are conclusively established. The possibility that "mad cow" disease might be transmissible to humans was raised soon after it was first identified in cattle in 1986. For much too long, this was dismissed on the comforting basis that a similar disease affecting the brains of sheep, scrapie, had been around for 200 years without infecting humans. This was a reasonable hypothesis, but it was only a guess. Now we know it was wrong. At the time, the possibility that it might be wrong should have been investigated with far greater urgency than it was.

The Phillips report speaks of ministers and officials failing to act when they knew in their heart of hearts that they should.When the risk of danger appears low, but that danger could be of catastrophic proportions, the precautionary principle ought to guide public policy. In such situations, governments should act first and carry out the research later.

The Government should have reacted differently to the Southwood working party in 1989, which said that, if it was wrong in its assumption that the risk of BSE transmission to humans was remote, "the implications would be extremely serious". Ministers should have asked themselves why, if it made sense not to put beef offal in baby food, it made sense to let children and adults eat it.

It is no comfort to the families of the bereaved or to those currently suffering what may be variant CJD, but it is a relief that the scale of the human infection seems likely to peak in the hundreds rather than in the thousands. But there was no way of knowing this at the time, or when a domestic cat was found to be infected with a form of the disease in 1990. The lack of urgency between then, and Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell's shocking announcement of a probable link between the disease in cattle and in humans six years later, was the most reprehensible phase.

Lord Phillips is generous in excluding the motive of a misguided attempt to protect the farming industry in explaining such dilatoriness, preferring to blame inter-departmental rivalries and "flawed" communication of risk. But much in his report strengthens the case, which was already overwhelming, for abolishing the Ministry of Agriculture. Its responsibilities should be transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry, while responsibility for food safety - through the Food Standards Agency - should become the sole preserve of the Department of Health.

The other vital structural lesson of the Phillips report is the need for greater openness in government, which underscores the inadequacy of the Freedom of Information Bill currently going through Parliament. Although ministers were constantly worried that journalists would stoke popular hysteria about the safety of beef, Phillips concludes that "the media played a valuable role in reflecting, and stimulating, public concern which proved well founded".

This Government may have assumed that the Phillips report would only set the buck pinging between former Conservative ministers. Instead, Tim Yeo, the Tory agriculture spokesman, emerged with credit yesterday by making a full, clean apology in the Commons, while it is the present government that urgently needs to act to minimise food safety risks in the future.

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