Leading Article: Bottled up by the ministry

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THERE is no problem. There is no risk to human health. There is no cause for concern. Do not panic. These messages from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - among the least trusted of government departments - about a suspected outbreak of the Aids-like bovine immunodeficiency virus (BIV) are as predictable as they are inadequate.

The public is understandably interested in all information about the safety of meat and dairy products, and is not reassured by evasive platitudes. There are reasonable grounds for concern. As the Independent on Sunday revealed yesterday, the Milk Marketing Board has refused to take milk from a Cheshire dairy farm where animals have been stricken by unexplained illnesses that resemble human Aids.

Tests may have been minimal - on just eight animals - but they reveal that two animals definitely have antibodies to the bovine immunodeficiency virus, a relative of the human Aids virus, HIV. Although government vets have been visiting the farm for several months and can find no obvious cause for various 'opportunistic' illnesses that seem to afflict the herd, it is reasonable to suggest that BIV may be responsible.

Instead of addressing these concerns, the ministry has covered up the issue. Official information about the bovine version of HIV in the UK has been neither forthcoming nor complete. Although a survey of British cattle conducted a year ago revealed BIV antibodies in some, the findings have not been published. The ministry claims that there is no reason to do so, but such secrecy is more likely to fuel rumour than stifle it.

Officials may argue that discretion is the best policy to avoid publication of scare stories based on incomplete information. Recent irresponsible reports linking human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease with mad cow disease and the consumption of beefburgers show the dangers of such misinformation. But the ministry has failed to recognise that its secretiveness is also causing great damage.

The family living on the Cheshire dairy farm has particularly suffered the ill-effects of government stonewalling. Officials have revealed little about what they think has caused the mystery illness. They seem to be more concerned to avoid giving the farmer grounds to claim compensation for the destruction of his livestock.

To claim, as the ministry does, that animals make a full clinical recovery from BIV flies in the face of evidence in this particular instance. The farmer has seen prize animals die and all his newborn calves appear to suffer an invariably lethal condition. Nor is the ministry right to say that there is little risk of infection and so dismiss calls to restrict the movement of the animals. The farmer can testify to how contagious the illnesses appear to be.

Gillian Shephard, the minister responsible, should realise that the best disinfectant for ill-informed alarm is the facts, properly researched and readily available.