FARMERS AND slaughterhouses displayed an "astonishing" lack of concern over the flouting of rules designed to protect the public against the risk of mad cow disease, the Government's former chief medical officer told the inquiry into bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) yesterday.
Sir Kenneth Calman, who was the chief medical officer at the Department of Health until last month, said that he had been accustomed to dealing with the drugs industry which had acted promptly whenever new BSE safeguards were introduced: for example when British bovine products were banned from being used in drug-making.
However, parallel measures to stop specified bovine offal (SBO), from being recycled in cattle feed or from entering the human food chain were not being rigidly followed or policed. "The farming and slaughterhouse industries didn't quite realise just how serious this would be for them, never mind the public health implications," he said.
Sir Kenneth's oral evidence to the inquiry reiterated his written statement saying that he and his officials were not aware that measures to remove SBOs from beef were being flouted by slaughterhouses and that contaminated feed was still being fed to cattle more than six years after it was banned.
He had received assurances from Keith Meldrum, the then chief veterinary officer and his counterpart in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), that the SBO ban was effective. It was only at the end of October 1995 that Mr Meldrum had written to Sir Kenneth informing him that Maff had evidence to suggest the ban was not working. "He informed me for the first time that on four occasions spinal cord had been found still attached to bovine carcasses."
Mr Meldrum told Sir Kenneth that these lapses were "disappointing" which led Sir Kenneth to say in his written statement that Mr Meldrum "understated the importance of the information". Sir Kenneth said yesterday that he had not meant to accuse Mr Meldrum personally as they had enjoyed a close working relationship.
It was only after he had received Mr Meldrum's letter that he had taken the matter to ministers. As a result a new set of safeguards was introduced at the end of 1995, just months before the announcement of a possible link between BSE and a new type of human brain disorder - new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
Tension between the Department of Health and Maff was clearly evident, however, in disputes over the wording of information that would be given to the public about failures to enforce anti-BSE measures.
Sir Kenneth said he wanted to be open. "Maff clearly thought that was a step too far."
The latter half of 1995 was a crucial time in the history of BSE because a number of farmers had developed CJD, raising concerns that BSE may have spread to the group that had come into closest contact with cattle. However, it was the cases of CJD in teenagers, which were first confirmed at the end of 1995, that began to suggest a new human brain disorder had emerged.
"It was a time of enormous concern and anxiety in terms of knowing what to tell the public," he said.
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