Leading article: Carving up the consumer

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The Independent Online
Suddenly and without apology the tone changes. The macho assertiveness that ministers have made their stock in trade gives way to clumsy hesitation and vague admission.

Let us make no mistake. What came out yesterday in ministers' statements, albeit smeared with political varnish and hedged with scientific modesty by the Chief Medical Officer, was official acknowledgement of a possible link between BSE, mad cow disease, and the degenerative disorder called Creutzfeldt Jakob disease. Worse than that, by ordering further measures to make beef safe, the Government is admitting that it is still worried by the incidence of BSE in British beef. The only conclusion a sensible consumer, parent or school cook can reach is that despite improvements in safety, there is still a risk that you can contract CJD by eating British beef products.

The consequences for the industries producing beef and milk, farmers and their land, abattoirs and retailers are difficult to underestimate. The political fall-out for the Government are dire. This admission comes after a parade of brazen attempts to laugh off consumer fears. Remember the celebrated hamburger stuffed into a young Gummer mouth; that parrot repetition about the safety of British beef production; that off-hand putting down of all those - scientists, consumer advocates, German importers, members of the public - who voiced their misgivings?

The Cabinet must start to behave like a modern government. This does not mean ignoring the uncertainties of the science or ignoring the consequences for jobs in the food industry. But it must mean governing in the common interest. For too long this government, and the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, has been ruling in the interests of beef producers when the interests of consumers should have been paramount. Consumers need to rely upon government regulation to make sure food is safe. The case is becoming insurmountable for a system of consumer regulation of food safety separate from the Ministry of Agriculture. This fiasco will cast a shadow over the Government's entire approach to food safety. If it can get it this wrong on beef, how many other food safety problems is it willing to downplay for the sake of the food producers?

It is also time to stop doing what Stephen Dorrell did yesterday, hiding behind coy references to what the Chief Medical Officer might feed to his grand-children. The public does not need only reassurance: it also needs clarity and honesty. There is hardly a department of government that should not be thinking about contingencies, for everything from international trade to alternative use for land now used for beef production. The impact will be felt throughout agriculture: if that land is used for cereal production, cereal prices will fall.

That would require the Government to start leading public opinion by informing it rather than being driven by public outcry into making a reluctant admission of what many have feared for so long. The Government has to say, out loud and in simple language: there are now too many strands of circumstantial evidence for us to ignore. British beef - or at least the huge range of consumer products based on beef products - are not reliable foodstuffs.

Hearing that from ministers, the public knows what to do - stop eating the stuff, stop buying the jellies and the Cornish pasties made from beef extracts for the time being. The food and livestock industries will have to live with the results - other industries have undergone major trauma without government aid and come out stronger and so this one might, once farmers put their stocks in order and the beef industry starts meeting its responsibilities to its consumers.

This is no recipe for panic. The incidence of BSE has declined in recent years. The industry has begun, albeit it slowly, to respond. Yet we know next to nothing about what an infectious dose might be nor, yet, whether brain, spinal cord and non-muscle tissue are the only culprits. In the circumstances, it is going to be hard to argue that schools and hospitals should not become ultra-cautious about what meat to serve. The beef industry will be most damaged by yesterday's announcements, but just as damaged will be confidence in a system of government that has again been exposed as arrogant and complacent.