Letter: Scientists must answer for BSE

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The Independent Online
Scientists must answer for BSE

Sir: Nicholas Schoon asks "Who deserves censure for BSE?"(14 February) and answers by commenting correctly that six agriculture ministers did too little and too late.

But the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) scientists who advise the politicians are also to blame. The macabre and unbiological feeding of dead sheep to our cattle began after the last war. Many of the sheep were, of course, infected with scrapie and as their brains - the infective tissue - were still in situ the then government vets insisted that the agrifeed industry follow strict guidelines designed to protect cattle from this almost indestructible organism.

These guidelines included the use of fat-solvents in the recycling process: the mammalian brain is very fatty and this manoeuvre ensured that brain tissue, complete with the infective organism, did not get into the cattle feed.

However, in 1981 it was decided, in the name of deregulation, that the agrifeed industry should no longer be shackled by guidelines and so they were relaxed. The Maff scientists, who presumably knew all about the scrapie agent, failed to intervene. In 1985 the first cow went down with BSE and by the end of 1986 Maff knew that six cows on three farms had died of it.

They did not then ban the feed (why not?): on the contrary, farmers all over the UK were encouraged to buy these new high-protein rations.

And the Maff politicians instructed their own vets that they would face dismissal if they published their interesting scientific papers on the subject or went around talking about a scrapie-like illness now in cattle.


London NW3

The author is a neuropathologist