2 January 1998

Full inquiry into history of BSE to run until year-end

By Jonathan Riley

A FULL and wide-ranging inquiry into the emergence and subsequent handling of the BSE outbreak is under way.

Announcing the decision just before Christmas, farm minister Jack Cunningham said that appeal court judge, Lord Justice Phillips, would lead the inquiry, which government wants to be completed by Dec 31, 1998.

Justice Phillipss remit will be to accumulate evidence relating to all aspects of the BSE crisis, from the lead up to the diseases emergence through to Mar 20, 1996 when ministers announced the likely link between new variant CJD in humans and the consumption of BSE-infected beef.

"The inquiry into BSE and nvCJD is needed because political and media attention have obscured the initial chain of developments through which BSE emerged," said Dr Cunningham.

He said that using evidence from those closely involved at the time, the inquiry would seek to establish how effective the measures taken were in limiting the effects of the outbreak.

Dr Cunningham said that information had already been requested from former PMs Baroness Thatcher and Lord Callaghan.

Other former ministers and civil servants may also be called by the inquiry to provide information. But, as a non-statutory inquiry, Justice Phillips will not have the power to force anyone to contribute information.

A MAFF official said the decision to opt for a non-statutory inquiry was taken to speed up the judicial process, because the legal intricacies involved in statutory inquiries could take many years.

Meat and Livestock Commission director general Colin Maclean welcomed the inquiry in principle, but expressed concern that the EU would be watching the investigation with great interest.

"It should be made clear that with regulation now in place, British beef is among the safest in the world. And that from a scientific viewpoint British exports could safely resume at any time," he insisted.

Pledging the NFUs full support and co-operation, union president Sir David Naish urged the government to ensure the inquiry was constructive and forward looking.

But he warned that while a properly constituted investigation would be worthwhile, it should not degenerate into a political points scoring exercise. "The matters are too crucial to both public and farming industry for this to happen," he said.

Inquiry welcome

CLA president Ian MacNicol welcomed the inquiry in the hope that it would be conducted impartially and that the projected completion date would be stuck to rigidly.

Hill Farming Initiative spokesman Alastair Davy also called for impartiality, because that would be the only way to restore public confidence in beef production.

He predicted that the investigation would show substantial numbers of herds in the specialist beef sector to be BSE-free.