Mad about bad food An independent mind

Profile: Richard Lacey
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The Independent Online
Richard Lacey likes being defiant. Five winters ago, soon after he began appearing on the front pages of newspapers, warning, with wholly original certainty, about mad cow disease and its dangers, a cattle-farming neighbour emptied the contents of his snowplough at the end of Professor Lacey's drive. Lacey's 19th-century manor stands on the wind-chilled crest of the West Yorkshire Pennines; the snow formed a frozen roadblock 20ft high. In anger, the farmer proved shortsighted, though: there was an exit at the back. Lacey drove out past him, "and just waved".

Lacey tells this story with a twinkle. In his big flapping suit, well filled, with tie askew, red cheeks, and a quiet riot of grey hair above, he could almost be a farmer himself, albeit a jollier one. His defiance, however, has a relentlessly serious purpose. Lacey is a visiting professor of microbiology at Leeds University and a consultant on epidemics for the National Health Service; more important than either, he is the scientist with the most troubling public worries for the safety of beef. Lacey, in his bluff, big-boned way, thinks a lot of us may die.

When he talks about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), his twinkle disappears into a deliberate, level-eyed blinking. Lacey considers BSE's transfer to humans, in the form of the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), to be a near-certainty: "We are vulnerable. The most likely peak figure for people going down is 0.1 per cent of the population per year. That's 50,000 people, and half a million in total over 20 years."

His latest piece of evidence for this danger, proffered grandly across his wide drawing-room, is a single sheet of paper. On it is a paragraph of results, published a week ago, summarising tests for BSE in pregnant cows and their calves carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), which has long accused Lacey of exaggerating the spread of the disease. The results show calves with BSE-infected mothers dying at three times the rate of other calves. Lacey has argued for this link between generations since 1994, against the opinion of Maff and the majority of BSE scientists.

But he does not offer the tiniest victory smile. He sees more in the figures: "No one else has picked this up," he says, stern and as concerned as a Victorian reformer. "Look at the deaths among the calves with healthy mothers. They were born after the feed that supposedly caused BSE was banned. None of their mothers had BSE." He pauses. "It suggests the disease is endemic."

Since 1988 Lacey has made a habit of such claims. In science journals, public health conferences, and, more controversially, tabloid columns and television studios, he has declared the official orthodoxy on BSE - that it is a minor health problem, requiring unhurried solution - to be "disgracefully" wrong. His heresies have covered the disease's origins, its scale, its transmission, its risk to humans, and its eradication. In return, he has been called a "terrorist" by the Times, a "bogus professor" by a Tory MP, even an agent of the former Soviet Union by enraged correspondents in the farming press.

Yet Lacey's doomy theses are accumulating authority: BSE has spread wider than the Government anticipated; the possibility of human infection has had to be accepted. And his more scatter-gun anger at the official handling of the crisis - that the Government has risked the health of the populace to protect its farming supporters - increasingly fits the public's sense of events. "It's not scaremongering," he says. "It's being open and honest. If we keep it in private no one will do anything."

Beyond Bse, Lacey finds anxieties in the dirty, strip-lit corners of industrial food production in general. Salmonella in eggs, botulism in pork, listeria in chilled ready meals - he has been at the centre of every recent food scare, soundbiting and briefing and broadcast-debating. He is persuasive: "Efficiency is the wrong concept for food matters. You get the optimum quantity, but the price you pay for that is poor nutrition, environmental damage, health risks, cruelty...." Lacey folds his arms, his collection of gilded mirrors hanging behind him. "I have a concern for the whole of our society."

The problem with this is one of scientific credibility. At various points during the afternoon, Lacey refers to BSE, with slight extra emphasis, as "the ultimate terror", "very, very like Aids", and a potential cause of "5 million" deaths. Scientists who make such large assertions can sound prophetic - or bound for Speaker's Corner.

"He's overestimated the thing," says Professor Peter Behan, a neurologist at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital and, in general, a Lacey sympathiser on BSE. "People are not going to go down left, right and centre." Sir Richard Southwood, an Oxford zoologist who was head of the Government's first BSE committee, agrees: "Since March only two more cases have arisen ... Lacey has tended to go to the most pessimistic point of view, which tends to promote a certain hysteria."

Beneath these relatively polite criticisms steams a lake of off-the- record peer resentment. Much of this focuses on Lacey's qualifications. He is an epidemiologist, expert on the patterns of disease, not their precise components or mechanisms. Blinking faster, he snaps back at this distrust: his critics are "jealous", or "contract workers", neutered by their ties to the Government. But he admits, "I've done no actual experiments on people or animals."

In fact, before Lacey became a public actor, his career was specialised and quiet. Following his father, a pathologist, he learnt biochemistry at Cambridge, then clinical medicine in London and microbiology at Bristol ("I liked seeing things grow"). Yet there was a seed of rebelliousness in him. At boarding school in the Fifties (he is 55), he "didn't like games or cold baths or being constantly occupied - you couldn't do what you wanted". His housemaster told him he had a bad attitude; Lacey hid among the microscopes of the biology labs.

This dislike of systems and their silencing tendencies returned in the mid-Eighties when Lacey joined Maff's veterinary products committee. "I saw how the pharmaceutical industry, the Ministry of Agriculture and the vets were manipulating the drugs for commercial gain." In 1989 he resigned, claiming that the committee had no independence - and explaining to newspapers in detail how civil servants and the industry made it so.

Lacey was becoming familiar with the power of freelance lobbying. In 1988 he had defended Edwina Currie's claim that most British eggs contained salmonella. He felt the hot embrace of the studio lights, so convenient to reach from the manor house, with Leeds Bradford airport two minutes away over the hilltops. A few months later he was on television again, after he and an assistant at Leeds University called Stephen Dealler found bacteria in a local supermarket. "We were working on listeria in chilled cooked food," says Dealler, now Dr Dealler and an ally of "Prof Lacey" on BSE. "Before we had any results, Today newspaper ran a headline saying, 'Peril in your TV dinner'. I said to Lacey, 'We'd better put out a statement denying it.' He said, 'You'd better go and find some listeria.' "

And then there was beef. In 1989 Lacey stopped eating it, and persuaded his wife and two daughters to do likewise. In an article for the Guardian he wrote, "We still don't know whether humans can be infected from eating the meat or drinking the milk of cows suffering from BSE." In 1990 he boldened this into a call for the slaughter of 6 million cattle, or half the national herd. The Sunday Times put it on the front page; unknown neighbours painted graffiti on his gates.

Lacey retaliated like an academic. Between 1991 and 1994 he published Unfit For Human Consumption, Hard To Swallow and Mad Cow Disease. The three books were quick hits of rousing scientific populism: part polemic, with exclamation marks, against factory farming; part epidemic warning, predicting "1,500 to 9,000" annual cases of CJD, as early as 1991; and part bossy lessons about hygiene in the kitchen ("nails should be maintained in such a way as to make washing easy").

With his tirades against microwaves and limp salads in pubs, Lacey's scolding had a fogeyish edge. But his presentation had grown modern. In 1992 he advised the BBC on a BSE thriller called Natural Lies and was incorporated as one of the characters. Four years on, his call for a shift back to an organic agriculture - however blaringly delivered - seems as sensible as Natural Lies' plot about the government covering up a farmer's death from CJD. "He's raised some important issues," says Professor Behan. "He may be wrong in the specifics but right in principle." Chastened Maff spokesmen have given up calling Lacey "a crank" and settled on "independent".

Despite his four acres, Lacey is identifiable as a very contemporary English rebel (he prefers "sceptic"): outraged by the brutalisation of the countryside, blaming business and government for it, and using the media to reach beyond them to the public. Agree to look round his garden, where he lets grasses and thistles spread at will, "just to see what happens", and his twinkle returns. He lumbers proudly about, pointing out three kinds of bees and the mole hills, which he leaves alone.

His green thoughts have their anxious side, of course. Fields of cattle encircle the garden; the local hostility "affects my wife more than me. My youngest daughter, who's 12, gets a bit of teasing at school." Lacey thinks he's too old to develop CJD himself from the beef he ate up to 1989. He says he can't be sure about the others.