Letter: There is plenty to beef about

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The Independent Online
From Sir Simon Gourlay

Sir: Following your excellent leader "To beef or not to beef ..." (6 December) you published two equally balanced "Argument" articles (7 and 8 December) on BSE. Two eminent scientists, Professor Colin Blakemore and Dr Robert Will, both agree that while certain facts about BSE are known, others will not be for some time; both agree that the risks to human beings are absolutely minimal. However, one believes the risk is sufficient to cause him not to eat beef, the other that it is so minimal that he is perfectly happy to ignore it.

The Government's line on BSE since public concern was first raised in 1988 has always been to be guided by science. In the absence of adequate scientific knowledge, this policy has frequently wrong-footed it as fresh bits of the scientific jigsaw have been put in place.

Until the missing pieces are found, it is as unconvincing to the public for John Gummer, when Minister of Agriculture, to feed an unwilling daughter on a beefburger as it is for the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, to say there is no conceivable risk to any human being. By making such statements, ministers undermine their own good intentions and lead to a severe lack of confidence by the public in what they are doing - a lack underlined by your report today ("Government beef expert breaks ranks", 9 December) that Professor Pattison, the Government's own appointment as chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, freely admits that such guarantees cannot yet be substantiated. The Government's primary target must be to restore public confidence. It will not do so by repeating that Austrians who have no BSE in cattle have a higher incidence of CJD than we do, nor by endlessly repeating that there has never been a case of CJD attributed to scrapie (the equivalent disease in sheep), factually accurate though both these statements are.

But it could go a long way towards restoring confidence if it would extend the Specified Bovine Offal order to all calves and young cattle and establish a Royal Commission which should report - at least initially - once every six months until such time as all the relevant scientific data is established beyond all reasonable doubt.

As president of the National Farmers' Union in 1990, I made myself deeply unpopular with the establishment in suggesting that the Government was dragging its feet in the way it was dealing with BSE. As a beef farmer with personal experience of this very unpleasant cattle disease, it frustrates me greatly that the Government is still doing so.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Gourlay

Knighton, Powys

9 December