For far too long ministers have put the interests of the beef industry ahead of the interests of consumers. The risk to the industry of tighter regulation and higher standards has been judged greater than the risks to the health of the public. Now both ministers and the industry are learning a painful lesson: in the long run if you take risks with consumer confidence you risk the future of the industry itself.
The industry is in need of a restructuring as great as the car industry in the late Seventies. By the late Seventies many ageing car plants were hopelessly uncompetitive, weighed down with outdated equipment and antiquated working practices. The British car industry is back on its feet after a massive capital reconstruction, the importation of foreign management and production methods and sweeping changes to working practices. The beef industry faces no less of a challenge and should learn from some of the lessons so painfully learnt in other industries which have had to change radically to keep the trust of their consumers. It will require far-sighted, professional and at times ruthless leadership in pursuit of the highest standards of quality and safety.
That was the message ministers delivered in the House of Commons yesterday by announcing that the Government does not plan to stem the crisis by ordering the wholesale slaughter of cattle, the measure that would have done most to restore confidence. As a result, the crisis for the beef industry will roll on and its adjustment to reality may take longer than it should.
The market will run its course. If politicians will not enforce higher standards on the industry, consumers surely will, by refusing to buy British beef. The British beef and dairy industries almost certainly will be left with a lot of unproductive, if not useless, assets in the form of cows, land and equipment, now worth far less than a week ago.
Two courses of action face the industry. It may hope that very few cases emerge of the new strain of CJD which is linked to BSE. It could disappear into its bunker, deny the scale of the problem and hope it may emerge in months, if not years, far smaller but still intact. The danger of that piecemeal approach is huge: the industry may never escape the shadow it is under. British beef will be as tainted as British cars were in the Seventies. It could take the industry a decade or more to rid itself of such a bad reputation.
So a radical and far-reaching strategy clearly to put its house in order is essential. For the far-sighted farmer, that should involve the voluntary slaughter of any cows at the slightest risk of contracting BSE and the importation of completely clean herds and processes from abroad. It is time for the farmers to reassure their consumers: only actions will do.