26 October 2000
BSE: Minister unveils further study
By Isabel Davies
THE government has announced that it will commission further independent research into the origins of Britains BSE epidemic.
Agriculture minister Nick Brown said unresolved questions remained about BSE despite the release of Lord Justice Phillips report into the crisis.
Mr Brown announced the further research during a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday (26 October).
“We do not know with certainty how the disease entered the cattle herd, or why it has so predominantly been a disease affecting this country,” he said.
“Lord Justice Phillips conclusion was that the origin of BSE was likely to be a new prion mutation in cattle, or possibly sheep, in the early 1970s.”
The remit of Lord Phillips report was to establish and review the history of the emergence of BSE and CJD, the human equivalent of the incurable disease.
The crisis has claimed 84 human victims despite the slaughter of more than 4.5 million British cattle in a bid to control BSE.
In his statement to MPs, Mr Brown started by stressing what a devastating impact BSE had had on the victims of CJD and their families.
BSE also had a serious impact on the many tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods depended on the beef industry, he added.
The BSE report concluded that BSE developed into an epidemic as the consequence of recycling of animal protein in ruminant foods, said Mr Brown.
“This practice unchallenged over decade proved a recipe for disaster.
Mr Brown said most people involved in the crisis “emerged with credit”.
But he added: “There were a number of shortcomings about the way things were done.”
Mr Brown said: “At the heart of the BSE story lies the question of how to handle hazard – an unknown hazard to cattle and an unknown hazard to humans.
“The government took measures to address those hazards.
They were sensible but they were not always timely, or adequately implemented and enforced.”
Mr Brown said policy measures to protect of human health were affected by the widespread belief before 1996 that BSE was not a threat to human health.
He said: “The government did not lie to the public about BSE.
“It believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote.
Mr Brown added: “The government was preoccupied with preventing an alarmist overreaction to BSE because it believed that the risks were remote.
“It is now clear that this campaign of reassurance was a mistake.”
Shadow farm minister Tim Yeo, whose party was in government during the crisis, said as far as he could judge the report was clear, comprehensive and fair.
But he believed it was important that the report was viewed in its entirety.
He told MPs: “I believe that the report does make clear that civil servants, other advisors, and minister acted honourably and in good faith.
“I agree with the report that we must avoid judging individuals with the benefit of hindsight,” he said.
Mr Yeo said that the Conservative Party, in government from 1979-97, recognised that mistakes had made, some of which had tragic consequences.
“I want to say that I am truly sorry for what has happened” he said.
“And I apologise to the families who have felt bereavement and to those people who are still fighting a terrible illness.”
BSE report coverage, 26 October, 2000: