Leading Article: To beef or not to beef ...

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The Independent Online
Ministers tell us that beef products are absolutely safe. There is, says the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, "no conceivable risk" to the public; he would let his own children eat hamburgers. Dr Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, would be happy to join them.

Yet the prospect of bumping into either of them in McDonald's is not wholly reassuring. Despite their advice, more and more people are giving up eating beef products for fear that they might become infected with a human form of BSE, better known as mad cow disease. Some are abstaining quietly and privately. Others are more public, with some parents insisting that beef should be taken off the school dinner menu. A number of eminent scientists have announced that they have given up pies and burgers which might contain offal. We may be on the brink of a panic that could severely damage the beef industry.

The problem is that we do not know whom to believe: the scaremongers, the worried scientists or statements from Whitehall. In the past, we would have accepted the word of a health secretary. But respect for politicians has sunk so low that their every utterance is regarded with cynicism.

Governments, after all, have an unreliable record when it comes to protecting public health. Recently, on the positive side, this particular administration was quick to go public on the dangers posed by certain types of contraceptive pill. Thousands of women switched brands in a matter of weeks. But the same government has also refused to order a total ban on the advertising of cigarettes, the only product which, if used according to the makers' specifications, is likely to kill.

Such a ban might damage tax revenue from cigarettes. Likewise, anything less than trenchant backing for the beef industry could lead to a sudden collapse of confidence in its products. No government wants to be held responsible for killing off a major British industry.

In short, there are plenty of reasons for doubting ministers when they express their love of hamburgers. That is why we need an independent assessment of the dangers posed to humans by BSE in cattle.

There is already an advisory group, comprising respectable scientists, which briefs the Government and the public on the threat. It has been more equivocal than Mr Dorrell about the risks, warning that it may be several years until complete reassurance can be given. But however earnest and conscientious this advisory body is, it can never command the trust of the public. It is simply too close to the Government.

A Royal Commission, with statutory powers, independent of the Ministry of Agriculture, should be established to give us a trustworthy picture of beef's safety. Its brief could be widened to cover other foods. Such a commission might not be able to provide all the answers. But at least everyone could make as informed a choice as possible before deciding their future eating habits.