16 October 1998

"Government bid to cover up BSE fears"

By Johann Tasker

GOVERNMENT officials tried to cover up fears that BSE could be transmitted to humans, the BSE Inquiry was told this week.

Kenneth Calman, the governments chief medical officer until his retirement last month, said he had to prevent officials putting out reassuring publicity about BSE after research indicated the disease could be passed to humans.

Sir Kenneth said he was told of a number cases of new variant CJD, the human form of the disease, in March 1996.

MAFF officials wanted to put out a reassuring message about BSE, even though its officers were "fully aware" of the findings, he said, adding that assurances given by the government that beef was safe did not mean that those eating it were at no risk of contracting nvCJD.

Sir Kenneth told the inquiry that when he said British beef was safe to eat, he meant that the risk was negligible, but not zero.

"We do not mean that a driver we describe as safe will never have an accident. The word safe means free from unacceptable risk or harm," he said.

Sir Kenneth signed several public statements vouching for the safety of British beef while he was chief medical officer.

He told the inquiry that such assurances had been given to the public on the assumption that the ban on brain, spinal cord and certain other cattle offals entering the food chain was being properly enforced.

In late 1995, just months before the government admitted that nvCJD had probably been caused by exposure to BSE, Sir Kenneth said he had been shocked to learn of breaches in the controls.

"The farming and slaughterhouse industries didnt quite realise just how serious this would be for them, never mind the public health implications."

In written evidence to the inquiry, Sir Kenneth accused Keith Meldrum, the governments former chief veterinary officer, of "understating" the seriousness of the abattoir findings.

Mr Meldrum will give evidence to the inquiry next week. &#42