13 April 1998
Ministry backtracks on mad cow theory
The Ministry of Agriculture is to research the theory that pesticides cause mad cow disease – a suggestion made by a farmer who officials have previously dismissed as a crank.
Mark Purdey, an organic farmer near Elworthy, Somerset, received a letter from the ministry after he gave evidence earlier this month to the bovine spongiform encepathalogy (BSE) inquiry in London.
The ministry has now written to Purdey saying it feels it is an area where more scientific work needs to be done.
The change of heart was prompted by experiments at the Institute of Psychiatry in London suggesting that Phosmet, an organophosphate pesticide used to kill parasites, could have made cattle far more susceptible to BSE.
These findings coincided with growing doubts about the official hypothesis that BSE was caused by scrapie being passed to cattle in feed containing rendered sheep remains.
Attempts to find a strain of scrapie that looks like BSE have failed , and many scientists now suspect that the disease may always have been present in cattle at a very low level. Phosmet could have been the trigger that caused what had been a rare endemic condition to explode to epidemic proportions.
Mr Purdey and a small group of other organic farmers raised £14,000 from private donors to fund the work by the Institute of Psychiatry.
It is not the first time Mr Purdey has taken a contrary view to the Ministry of Agricultures. In 1982, he objected to the Ministrys instructions to use Phosmet twice a year to kill warble fly and eventually obtained an exemption from its use on his herd.
He based his views about the scrapie link to BSE on his experience. There were no cases of BSE in any animals born and bred on organic farms even though they had been fed infected feed. Purdey discovered that most organic farmers were not in the areas designated for compulsory warble fly treatment and thus, like him, had not used organophosphates.