27 October 2000
Lawyers mull over BSE report
By Johann Tasker
LEGAL action could be taken against renderers, feed manufacturers and the government following the publication of the report into Britains BSE crisis.
The 16-volume report from the BSE Inquiry was unveiled after a statement by agriculture minister Nick Brown in the House of Commons on Thursday (26 October).
It is a damning indictment of how top civil servants and Conservative ministers handled the BSE crisis until 20 March, 1996.
That was the date when health secretary Stephen Dorrell finally admitted that there could be a link between BSE and CJD, the human equivalent of the disease.
The report reveals that the failure to halt BSE was largely due to a culture of secrecy among rival government departments and top civil servants.
The spread of the disease into the human food chain was accelerated by the willingness of ministers to make repeated public statements that “beef is safe”.
While this was happening, BSE-infected animal products were being consumed by humans and livestock.
Immediately after the report was published, officials from the National Farmers Union began trawling through hundreds of pages of findings.
They believe that close scrutiny of the 16 volumes could reveal “implications for farmers legal rights relating to the BSE crisis”.
Over coming days, union leaders will take outside legal advice in a bid to determine exactly what those implications are and whether any action is justified.
Lawyers are likely to focus on the issue of BSE-infected material which continued to be eaten by humans and livestock despite being banned in 1989.
NFU deputy-general Ian Gardener told Farmers Weekly: “One of the undoubted criticisms is going to be the policing of controls in abattoirs.”
Mr Gardener said it would be wrong for anyone to automatically assume that the union would sue renderers, feed manufacturers and the government.
But he added: “The NFU will study the report carefully on behalf of its membership to see whether it has any implications against those people.”
It remains to be seen whether lawyers for the union manage to find a foothold for legal action somewhere in the 16-volume report.
Kenneth Calman, the former chief medical officer, indicated to the inquiry in October 1998 that he felt farmers were partly responsible for spread of BSE.
Sir Kenneth was alerted to the fact that the offal ban was not working in a letter from the then chief veterinary officer Keith Meldrum in October 1995.
During the inquiry, Sir Kenneth accused Mr Meldrum of “understating” the importance of findings that the ban was being contravened.
In turn, Mr Meldrum – who is heavily criticised in the report – told the inquiry that the measures necessary to control and eradicate BSE had been put in place.
Within the beef industry, however, it is unclear whether anyone will finally accept any criticism over the failure of the offal ban.
Beef producers, feed companies, abattoirs and renderers are all likely to come under renewed scrutiny but continue to blame one another for the spread of BSE.
They are only likely to escape the limelight if the action of high-ranking civil servants and industry leaders is raked over once again with a fine-tooth comb.
Ministers have now agreed in principle to fund compensation for the families of CJD victims, which has so far claimed 84 victims.
British farmers leaders who recognise that the human tragedy is far greater for those families believe a swift pay-out is justified.
More than 4.5 million cattle have been slaughtered in a bid to control BSE. Farmers have received 1.4bn in compensation.
The CJD families have received nothing.
BSE report coverage, 26-27 October, 2000: