26 October 2000
BSE: The farmer’s story
By Alistair Driver and Johann Tasker
DORSET dairy farmer Simon Banfield knows all about BSE.
He lost more than 100 animals to the disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s as it ravaged his farm four miles outside Dorchester.
Like many livestock farmers, Mr Banfield was mixing his own feed using high-protein meat and bonemeal from bovine by-products.
“We were feeding it to our dairy herd in quite big quantities and, in a different ration, to our young stock from a young age. That is no doubt why we succumbed to BSE worse than most of our neighbours.”
In a bid to maintain milk production, Mr Banfield resorted to milking low-yielding beef cattle rather than his high performance dairy cows.
When scientists eventually established a link between BSE and meat and bonemeal, he found a different supply of protein.
“From that date, we never had another case of BSE born on the farm. The cut-off point was remarkable,” he told Farmers Weekly this week.
But the ripple effects of the disease – which affected more than 35,000 farms in Britain – have spread far and wide first across Britain, then the world.
The disease wrecked public trust in British farmers, turned the industry on its head, and was a catalyst in the creation of the current agricultural crisis.
The human equivalent of BSE has so far claimed 84 victims. Consumers who once took no interest in food production now question the way farmers operate.
Domestic beef sales plummeted in the weeks after the crisis and took years to recover. British Beef exports are still in the doldrums.
About 274,000 tonnes of beef worth 520 million were exported in 1995. In the last 12 months, the UK exported just 500 tonnes worth a paltry 5m.
Farmers reacted to the BSE crisis by taking big steps in an effort to persuade a sceptical public – and media – that their food is safe.
The loss of consumer trust across all farm sectors has led to massive changes in on-farm practices as well as better hygiene standards.
One of the biggest changes has been the advent of farm assurance.
Before BSE, assurance schemes had a low profile covering small pockets of production. Now they encompass much of the food produced on UK farms.
Many producers see them as crucial in helping farmers re-brand themselves as people who care about food safety, welfare and traceability.
The rise of farmers markets and local produce-marketing initiatives has been another response to the need to put a human face behind farm produce.
Steadily rising demand for organic food appears to be linked to the inherent distrust in intensive farming methods generated by BSE.
The shift in attitudes towards food is apparent in the biotechnology debate. Farm leaders no longer go unchallenged when they claim GM crops are safe.
Consumers and environmental campaigners are quick to point out that exactly the same thing was said about beef during the BSE crisis.
Politicians and civil servants have been forced to change the way they view farmers and food production.
Shaken by accusations from Brussels that they mishandled the BSE crisis, ministers have taken a new attitude toward meat hygiene rules.
Farmers and small abattoirs are overrun with paperwork and deluged stringent demands from the Meat Hygiene Service which oversees the countrys abattoirs.
The Food Standards Agency, launched last April, delivered the Labour Partys pledge to put the interests of consumers before producers.
Back in Dorset, Mr Banfields dairy herd has now been free from BSE for the past seven years. But these days his farm is almost unrecognisable.
Before BSE, he and his family milked 450 cows in three dairy herds. Today, he milks just 155 cows kept on a single farm.
Mr Banfield believes the lessons learned from BSE mean that British beef is now the safest in the world. If only the French could be persuaded to eat it.