13 October 1998
Safe beef `did not mean zero risk
by FWi staff
ASSURANCES that beef was safe did not mean that eating it carried no risk of catching the human form of mad-cow disease, the BSE Inquiry was told yesterday.
Sir Kenneth Calman, the Governments former chief medical officer, told the inquiry that when he said British beef was safe to eat, he meant that the risk was negligible but not “zero”.
Sir Kenneth said: “If you look at safe in ordinary speech, we do not mean that a driver we describe as safe will never have an accident.”
The word safe meant “free from unacceptable risk or harm”, he added.
Sir Kenneth, who retired last month, signed several public statements vouching for the safety of British beef while holding public office.
He also endorsed Meat and Livestock Commission newspaper advertisements published as late as December 1995.
Sir Kenneth said he had serious doubts at this time about the efficacy of measures taken by the Ministry of Agriculture to stop BSE-infected material getting into the human food chain.
Just months after the advertisements appeared, the government admitted that the fatal brain condition, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD), had probably been caused by exposure to BSE.
Sir Kenneth said he had never ruled out the possibility that BSE could pass to humans, though he had initially regarded the risk as low.
Sir Kenneth told the inquiry that safety assurances had been given to the public on the assumption that the ban was being properly enforced on brain, spinal chord and certain other cattle offals entering the food chain.
He said he was shocked to learn of breaches in the ban.
“The farming and slaughterhouse industries didnt quite realise just how serious this would be for them, never mind the public health implications.”
Sir Kenneth also said he had clashed with Ministry of Agriculture officials on the wording of a statement about the breaches.
But his concerns were overruled by officials.
In written evidence to the inquiry, Sir Kenneth accused Keith Meldrum, the governments chief veterinary officer, of “understating” the seriousness of the abattoir findings.
But yesterday Sir Kenneth told the inquiry that the written evidence he had not intended to make any personal criticism of Mr Meldrum.