26 October 2001

DEFRAslow off the block

with BSE test fiasco news

By Alistair Driver

GOVERNMENT officials knew that a key experiment testing sheep brains for BSE was wrecked at least 10 hours before publicising the news late at night on a departmental website, FARMERS WEEKLY can reveal.

Chris Bostock, the scientist at the centre of the fiasco, said he was told of the devastating news by DEFRA officials at "around noon" last Wednesday (Oct 17).

But DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett over-ruled her media advisors and decided to publish the news on the DEFRA website at about 10.30pm that night.

The cross-checks that rendered the four-year experiment useless were conducted by LGC, the UKs largest analytical laboratory. An LGC spokeswoman said it presented the results formally to DEFRA on Wednesday afternoon, but said it had contacted the department in the morning.

Mrs Beckett denied the department was trying to suppress the information. In a statement made later to MPs on Monday (Oct 22) she said: "Only at around 6pm on Wednesday did we receive information suggesting that the sample sent to the DNA lab was indeed thought to be representative of the brain pool."

But David Curry, chairman of the House of Commons agriculture select committee, said the way the issue was handled showed a lack of political judgement. He had asked Mrs Beckett about the BSE sheep tests during a select committee meeting that same morning. But she did not mention the fiasco and failed to contact him later.

Mr Curry told FARMERS WEEKLY: "If officials found out before lunch-time and delayed getting the information in front of Mrs Beckett it shows a failure to realise how lethal this thing was. It could have had a colossal impact and led to the slaughter of the entire sheep flock. The select committee will be taking an interest in this."

A DEFRA spokesman confirmed that Mrs Beckett was told "something was up" when she came out of agriculture select committee meeting at 1pm. But she then went into another meeting and was not told the "full details" until much later in the afternoon, he said.

The spokesman added: "We were informally told something was in the wind before lunch but Mrs Beckett was sitting in a series of meetings. There were practical difficulties at this end in getting people into the right place."

&#8226 For more on the fiasco, see pages 16,17 and 85 &#42

Spot the difference… scientists tested cattle brains instead of sheep.