Who deserves censure for BSE?

No less than six agricultural ministers did too little, too late
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As the cross hairs in Labour's rifle sights settle on the fedora'd head of Douglas Hogg, it is time once more to attempt a ready reckoning. What has the BSE crisis cost us? How could it have been avoided?

It was the embattled agriculture minister himself who boasted about the awesome scale of those costs last week, in a coolly received speech to the annual general meeting of the National Farmers Union.

The Government had committed pounds 3.3bn on BSE-related expenditure, "equivalent to 2p on income tax", he said. The figure includes money spent over the past 11 months of full-blown crisis, and money which will be spent over the next three years.

But Mr Hogg did not mention several other, equally charged figures - the 15 deaths so far put down to new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the cruel and lethal brain affliction that the Government's scientific advisers ascribe to eating BSE-contaminated beef.

No one has kept count of how many farms and abattoirs have been bankrupted. There is no precise figure for farm suicides related to the BSE crisis, although coroners have been hearing that the uncertainty and hardship engendered drove several already struggling cattle farmers to kill themselves.

And there are other, much vaguer but perhaps even larger, costs. Historians may one day mark the summer of 1996, with the beef crisis and the ill- tempered Florence summit, as the time when Britain's relations with the EU soured decisively.

And what of the cattle themselves? Old dairy cows used to be slaughtered to make low-grade beef products, like burgers and pies. Now more than one million of them have been turned into great piles of dust under the "Over Thirty Month Scheme". Rendered-down meat and bone meal, and great vats of molten fat or tallow are stored in warehouses around the country.

These materials can't be dumped in landfill sites because they contain tiny quantities of prion protein, the mysterious, extraordinarily robust molecule that has caused the epidemic. The Government is still trying to work out how to burn the stuff.

Some 500,000 baby male calves, just a few days old, have also been slaughtered because the European Union ban on British beef exports wiped out the market for them. They used to be exported to the Continent, to be confined in veal crates for a short life before slaughter, a practice that led to mass protests at places like Brightlingsea. Now they are slaughtered even younger and farmers are compensated for each purposeless death.

At the moment, the best guess must be that we are at the beginning of the end of the crisis. Hopefully, the number of new variant CJD cases will run into a few dozen a year at most, rather than hundreds or thousands. But this is still only a hope, not a likelihood, and no scientist who knows what she or he is talking about would dream of making a precise estimate.

British farming and British meat have clearly survived the European ban and the damage to public confidence in pretty good shape, thanks to huge dollops of taxpayer subsidy. As Mr Hogg told farmers last week, prices in livestock markets have largely recovered and household consumption of the best beef cuts is now almost back at its pre-crisis levels.

With the Government belatedly implementing the selective cull of cattle, the only unfulfilled promise from the Florence EU summit, the conditions are theoretically in place for the rest of Europe to lift the export ban. But this won't happen for months if not years, because continental politicians know their voters would never stand for it.

But at least Britain is belatedly completing its part of the Florence bargain. This cull will kill a further 100,000 or so cattle, in addition to the 1.2 million slaughtered under the Over Thirty Month Scheme. Ministry of Agriculture vets are now scouring Britain's farms, selecting older surviving cattle that once belonged to herds where other animals came down with BSE.

These are, essentially, confidence-building moves. They will kill a few older cattle that would have come down with BSE but will do very little, if anything, to protect human health because there is already a ban on meat from cattle over 30 months old going into the human food chain.

With the clarity of hindsight, we can all see that again and again government did too little, too late over the last 10 years - and six agriculture ministers - since Ministry scientists first diagnosed the new disease in cattle. It gave too much weight to the immediate worries of farmers and the food industry; and it downplayed fears, so as not to scare consumers. If only they had publicised their worries, some people who have since contracted new variant CJD from eating infected meat might have avoided doing so and be alive today.

Perhaps its biggest failure, in a time of deregulation and declining state intervention, was not to enforce the successive regulations it decreed to stop BSE-contaminated products being eaten by humans and cattle. This is the view of Professor John Pattison, Dean of University College, London Medical School and chairman of the Government's leading advisory committee on BSE. "The principles of what we did have been correct. The enforcement left something to be desired."

But even if everything that the scientists advising the Government had recommended had been implemented ruthlessly, there might well have been some new variant CJD deaths in humans. It may well be that the fatal doses of prion protein were taken in by humans nearly 10 years ago, during the earliest period of the BSE epidemic in cattle.

Of course it could have been avoided if the original sin of feeding ground- up cattle and sheep remains to cattle had never been allowed; these days, it is banned for cows and all other animals. But the practice dates back decades and was never questioned by a public who, by and large, did not want to know the grisly details of how they got their mass-produced food. It was a practice which happened in several other countries as well as Britain. The mystery, still unsolved, is why it led to such a large epidemic only here.

Mr Hogg is fair game and Labour's decision to gun for him on Monday is understandable, reasonable, realistic. Of course it's nothing personal; the man himself is a mere cypher for the Government's overall failure in tackling the crisis - the long, slow build-up to the announcement of the CJD link last March and the hurricane that has blown ever since. He is inclined to bumptiousness in public, and it was unwise of him to refuse to attend the European Parliament's inquiry into the crisis. But his real offence is to have been the Government's front man when things went really wrong.

Labour, however, ought to pray that it is never challenged by a crisis which is so far-reaching, challenging and as bewilderingly complex as BSE. Frankly, any government would be found wanting.