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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 10:24 GMT
BSE: Have we learnt our lesson?
The long-awaited report into the BSE crisis has criticised the then Tory Government's handling of the affair. But it adds that there was no deliberate attempt to mislead the public.
Lord Phillips' 16-volume report follows a £27m inquiry lasting two-and-a-half years. It says the way the public was informed about the risk of the disease was "flawed".
The Conservatives have apologised to the victims of vCJD, the human form of BSE. A national fund will now be set up to help the families of victims.
Are you convinced we've learnt our lesson from this tragic incident? Do you trust politicians and civil servants with issues of public health? Could this sort of crisis happen again?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Although the Government was appallingly irresponsible in its denial of the hazards of BSE, I feel that the most ignorant group involved were and are the consumers themselves. It was selfishness and abject greed that caused people to demand their chunk of meat, when they could always have chosen another product from the many available, or better still, not eaten meat at all.
I think the best future safeguard of public health is education. If ordinary people know enough about biology, chemistry and physics, then they are able to make intelligent decisions based not on the lies of Government. ministers and politicians but on their own personal understanding. What this BSE debacle has shown is that official edicts on what is safe or not safe are totally meaningless and that as always the end result will be an early meeting with the grim reaper for tens of thousands of dumb suckers (the people).
Patrick Melling, UK
I think it is highly likely that nvCJD will become to the UK what AIDS is to the African Subcontinent.
Having read the reports I am sadly of the opinion that the British government is burying its head in the sand and failing to acknowledge its full culpability. There is a long way to go before the freedom of information act is seen to be being complied with fully. I think British subjects now and in the future should continue to hold the government's feet to the fire and continue to demand the highest levels of personal culpability from individual MPs.
Having read some of the comments like "We are paying high taxes to support the already rich farmers" and "Getting second class food" I feel it does go to show how far removed some consumers are from real life. There are very few rich farmers especially in the beef producing areas. The taxes help to keep British farmers in business. If we can spend millions on a Greenwich fiasco we can at least afford to keep on of Britains most important industries on its feet. I have seen the controls imposed on British beef and I know the same controls do not exist elsewhere in the world. The French government has admitted that some BSE infected meat entered the food chain, where is the blanket ban on French beef?
We know politicians are inclined to be economical with the truth.
However, science is the quest for truth.
So scientists are supposed to concerned with truth aren't they?
Pity then that so many scientists let themselves into the "don't rock the boat camp" thereby allowing the truth to go unheard for years in the case of BSE and other issues.
I can't help but think that this whole issue is still not understood by scientists at all. After years of research and no doubt significant amounts of money spent they still only "think" there is a link ! You can't blame the government for reacting the way they did based on such weak science. Even today, the evidence of a major problem is not borne out given the extremely low number of vCJD victims who could, for all we know, simply be the unfortunate victims of another new disease, something that is nothing new. I still don't understand why such paranoia was never aimed at the lamb industry which has been dealing with scrapie for a long time. According to the "scientists" this is one and the same as BSE in cattle but for some reason doesn't seem to be considered a threat. At the end of it all, one has to wonder if it isn't simply the media hype that has made BSE what it is today, and nothing more!
Paul Clements, UK
Reading the comments it does not seem to me as if there was any lesson even being acknowledged as such. The question is not whether the French or other European countries made a worse mistake than the English government did. Too many people are missing the point here. Fact is that consumers weren't informed about possible dangers. Instead they were made believe that national products were safe and that eating British beef is a matter of national pride. And why did this work?
I always thought that cows ate grass or at least grass/vegetable derived processed food, but it seems not, so there's a lesson for you!
It just goes to show how much these poor beef farmers cared about their cattle, doesn't it? Feeding their cows something without a label on it! I wouldn't do that to a rabid dog, let alone an animal for human consumption. And it's no good protesting that they had no choice in order to stay in business; if you can't do the job properly at the right price then the business just isn't viable. Millions of ship builders, steel workers, coal miners and people in other traditional industries have had to learn that lesson the hard way. So why shouldn't the farmers? Oh, I forgot, they're not urban working class and tend to vote Tory! Another lesson there then.
Winnie Morris, UK
Peter Cameron, UK
The 'trust us we know what's safe for you' attitude to GM food, demonstrates that no lesson has been learnt.
I worked on a farm where 4 cows developed BSE. I feel some of the blame should be directed to the animal feed industry who, in a effort to cut costs and increase profits, used rendered meat and bone meal in cattle food. Farmers brought these products in good faith to supplement the cattle's diet during the period when grass does not contain a lot of nutrients, i.e. winter .
According to the report, MAFF deliberately
prevented their own scientists from
publishing results in open scientific literature.
The free flow of information is one
of the cornerstones of science. If you prevent
this you undermine
one of science's greatest strengths.
Keep politics out of science.
Politicians are arts graduates. God only knows what they think BSE is. They lack the basic ability to understand causal relationships or statistics. They confuse "lack of evidence" with "evidence of lack". Any new piece of scientific information is invariably ambiguous and there will be genuinely held beliefs on both sides. If you have a degree in history or languages, a minister lacks the ability to work out which viewpoint is most credible.
John Ley, England
I remember people saying that BSE could infect humans long before any ban came in - and the state contradicting them. There is no reason for them to say they did not know and they should be punished.
You ask the question, "BSE: Have we learnt our lesson"? After hearing that the Food Standards Agency have in the last few days lifted the ban on offal from calves entering the food chain, the answer must be no. Again we see the culture of secrecy and vested interest that the Philips report highlighted, to the fore. This Labour Government like the last Tory one have lost credibility on this issue. As for the FSA they should be ashamed of themselves as no-one will now believe they put the interests of the public first!
It misses to mark to say it was simple greed, which produced BSE. It was all but inevitable in a free-trade environment which drives out anyone who doesn't use the most efficient means of production. It's a viscous cycle, and only the abolition of this free-trade madness, combined with sensible national laws, can bring it to an end.
Perhaps the government of the day decided the responsible decision would be to avoid hysteria and panic. As other correspondents have already pointed out, 90 odd deaths in 15 years is hardly an epidemic. Britain acknowledged its mistakes well before other nations, such as France did.
Elizabeth Coldwell, UK
I am amazed that this report has cost £27m. I if I found out I had CJD, I would want the state to grant me the right to die with my dignity and humanity, and would rather see millions of pounds spent on saving other people from my fate.
Steve Kidson, South Australia
Sadly I reckon these disasters will happen time after time. I did not and do not place a lot of trust in politicians or civil servants, I place even less trust in big business. The lessons that need to be learned may be difficult to communicate to some who are usually or often classified by themselves and others as "experts".
This title could, or may infer that they already know a great deal more than your average Joe, whom it may be said often as "common sense". If a similar set of events leading to disaster occurred only at blue collar level, then all concerned would be dealt with most severely, I think the people who keep saying that they get paid highly because they carry big responsibilities all to often fail to be responsible.
But hasn't anyone noticed that
£27,000,000 of the money we all pay as taxpayers has been used to produce this report, whereby
nothing will come of it other than a few embarrassed ex ministers and civil servants who will get nothing more than a media bloodied nose, and then carry on regardless, as they tend to do.
That's £27m to tell us that "Yes, they got it wrong". And only
allowed to be said years after the fact, whereby the original opinions
of the "experts" of the time are now seen as nonsense.
With will and interest, most details in this "report" could have been achieved with common sense and the ability to read.
G Harris, UK
What surprises me about the CJD crisis is that anyone is surprised any more. Greed caused the situation, along with a tradition of Whitehall secrecy that shows no signs of being tackled, despite the promises. Whether the actions of those concerned was complacency or criminal neglect doesn't bother me so much as their amazing capacity for self-justification. How on Earth do such people sleep at nights?
And what of the people who started it all - the farmers? The only pressure that compelled them to turn livestock into cannibals was the pressure of greed - and now they whine as public trust in their industry (for industry it is) reaches an all-time low.
Let's face it - this country has degenerated into a virtual banana republic, where there is no bottom line so long as you have enough money to grease ministerial palms.
Learned a lesson?? Of course not. The same situation could easily happen again. The public has already been warned of the possibility, albeit small, of the development of brain tumours due to mobile phone usage, especially in children. Has this been taken on board by government? Of course not. Look how much money they got from selling off telecommunications licences. There was some vague suggestion that parents should perhaps limit mobile phone use by their children, and that was it. Responsibility over. It will take several individuals to die from brain cancer before anymore is said on the subject. Those vocal in this area are ignored and now the story has been forgotten by the majority of the public. Only when there has actually been a disaster do those in power say that there was a crisis.
Alex White, UK
Two missing pieces of the puzzle:
S. McDonagh says "thank goodness for the EU who put their people first". Has she not heard just how many cases of BSE are now appearing in France? Belgium and Holland also have the problem, and probably the rest of the EU too. The only difference between them and us is that we acknowledged the problem many years ago and started to clean up our act instead of hiding everything under the carpet like other EU countries!
No one mentions the human growth hormone victims who died of CJD. Could the spontaneous emergence now talked about in cows be the consequence of illegal administration of bovine growth hormone to speed development? Has this possibility been investigated?
I just can't believe the BSE crisis
was allowed to become
a crisis at all. How can we ever trust
this country again?
I feel that much of the current crisis is because public safety has taken a back seat to the profits of farmers and the food industry. Even today, many governments are in a state of denial - Switzerland, France, Germany, etc. Perhaps an expensive compensation package will teach the British government if not other governments that dishonesty is actually more expensive in the long run. I was living in the UK in the late 80s and heard all the reassurances (now found out to be lies) that BSE didn't affect dairy cows (wrong), that it was ok to eat beef as long as it was well done (wrong), that BSE couldn't affect a human (wrong), etc.
What I want to know is why beefbone meal is still allowed to contaminate the soil and possibly fruits and vegetables.
John Curran, UK
One major issue that needs to be addressed is why scientists who worked for MAFF are still working under the official secrecy act and have been threatened with legal action by the department if they reveal scientific results that could be embarrassing or critical of government policy. Scientific work undertaken by MAFF especially those concerning BSE should be published openly for all members of the scientific community and the public at large to understand and not be subject to censorship. Likewise relevant scientific discussion that occurs in all committees that make decisions on the safety of food, drugs and animal husbandry should be made open to the public.
Researchers suggest that more people die of eating beef and other meat than from cigarette smoking. It's about time we taxed foods that are bad for us and subsidised those that are good. How else are we to stop kids eating more sweets than fruit? How else can we get the poorest families to eat a plant-centric diet, which is what many authorities suggest? It's time we saw meat (and dairy) as add-ons to our diet and not as being central to it. But of course, governments act too little, too late, and we saw that in the BSE crisis.
It's the same the world over:
Time after time we hear the politicians "rubbish" scientists. How on earth can they know better?
Responsible scientists such as Professor Richard Lacey have warned throughout that the BSE precautions were probably inadequate and ineffectively applied. Ministers must have known that "no evidence of risk" is not the same as "evidence of no risk", and should err on the side of safety, not on that of business. We now know that subclinically infected animals are infective (obviously) but we still allow young animals, some of which are certainly subclinically infected, on the food market.
What goes around comes around? What a pity farmers are having to sell their Land Rovers and 2nd homes in the current climate. Talk all you like about government, the greed and "world owes us a living" attitude of farmers started all of this.
Yet government ministers still insisted beef was OK therefor putting an industry ahead of its own people's safety. How despicable and callous. Thank God for the EU who put people first. How many other countries would feed their own people infected meat?
S. McDonagh, Canada
Will GM issues be the same as CJD?
What has happened about the idea of making a transfusion blood substitute with animals?
Interestingly there has not been any apology (to my knowledge anyway) from the beef industry and the farmers. There was a time when most people believed that we could trust the farmers with our food. They knew the land, they understood the animals.
Why is it then, that so many town dwellers like myself had an instinctive feeling that feeding brains and other offal to cows was messing with nature and a 'recipe for disaster'. Why couldn't the farmers see this?
M Baldwin, UK
Thank God for a media that pursues these kind of issues. Without it we would be totally at the mercy of Ministers and their bureaucrats. The CJD scandal, like the arms to Iraq affair and now the genetically modified foods fiasco show the contempt that governments of both persuasions hold the people of this country. Giving compensation is right and holding those responsible (and punishing them) is necessary.
John S. Elrick, UK
It's strange that we should be so concerned with the fate of people dying as a result of eating BSE infected material whilst doing so little, over decades, to prevent the premature death of hundreds of thousands every year from the diseases caused directly by smoking and by drinking alcohol.
It's interesting to see who lines up with who. The Conservative government lined up with the farming/food lobby in a desperate struggle to salvage the industry, after it had already made, what turned out to be foolish, money saving concessions on food production. And who steps in to defend the interests of the consumer (i.e. the British citizen), not the farmers, not the government; but the supposedly despicable European Union.
Whilst always reluctant to allow politicians off the hook, it seems to me that a sense of proportion is needed here. According to recent figures, new CJD has accounted for eighty-five deaths since 1985. Although tragic for those personally involved, it can hardly be called an epidemic.
The used oil from restaurants and fast food outlets, as well as from meat cooking plants, is collected and heat treated. At least, this is the theory - it is not always done. It is then added to animal feeds as a high protein additives. BSE is a protein. Therefore, if any of the meat that has been cooked in the oil is contaminated by BSE, it is then re-introduced into the human food chain for a second time.
Terry de Winne, Northern Ireland
Now we know so called respected and trusted politicians can and will lie to cover up the truth, how can we truly trust claims on issues such as MMR vaccination links to autism when one sees so many parents who know how their individual children have been affected. How we can we ever believe the official responses are based on fact and not deceit - from any politician.
1. That there was a culture engendered by the then Tory administration of a Civil Service that was cowered by its political masters.
2. The Civil Service was not allowed to be independent due to political nominees and postings at very high levels.
3.The Civil Service with tight budgetary controls was not encouraged to take a long term view, or allot a wider analysis.
4. Civil Servants within the 'Ministry of Ag and Fish' would have known the then government's loyalties to the farming industry and would have cowered to the expected conclusions that would have been expected of them.
All the points above were the responsibility of the then Tory administration. It is the political masters that have the full responsibility and not Civil Servants.
Andrew Baker, England
I somehow doubt any lesson was learned of the BSE case. Not in UK, not anywhere else. This is because the driving force behind the whole thing was pure greed; nothing else.
Regulatory standards are (if they exist in a suitable form) applied to an entire industry regardless of size of a particular supplier or market segment. This means that the producer a single e.g. meat pie must conform to the same standards as the manufacturer of cattle feed for the entire UK herd.
I believe that standards should not be relaxed for small suppliers, but should be strengthened by an order of magnitude for suppliers who can affect the health of an entire nation.
I doubt we have learnt any lessons. The same old story of people being led down the garden path being told all is safe. Still, at least we are not like the hypocritical French whose cattle is infected far worse than ours are.
Maybe I should have been more circumspect but I wasn't. Now I live with the fear, not for myself only, but for my child as well. How dare they have gambled with our security, peace of mind and futures in such a reckless manner.
As to the response that they acted with the knowledge they had available at the time, then how come the Irish Republic took every step to prevent a health catastrophe by culling herds with BSE and making sure it stayed out of the food chain. As to the two Irish people already diagnosed with CJD, they lived in the UK at the time of the BSE fiasco. I will never believe anything a government minister or scientist says about health matters, especially if they have a vested interest.
Meral Nugent, UK
The time has come for a complete clearout, if not the disbanding of the most disingenuous government department... MAFF. These are the same people who faced with indisputable evidence regarding the farce of the animal quarantine laws, conned the EU and the government into introducing the watered down Passports for Pets, and hailed it as a great step forward.
If you talk about risks in everything, and all adults have to take them, this is fine if you are speaking about your own life; where you take risks with other people's lives - and worse still a whole nation - then you must be made responsible if your gamble goes wrong.
So far only a few are dead of this horrendous CJD variant. If this "adult risk" as someone put it ultimately leads to more, and it can be proven likely that negligence and delay on the part of those who took it are responsible, then prosecutions and jail sentences should follow.
Nothing will bring back the dead, or help those with CJD or those who ultimately develop the disease; yet making people responsible, and willing to take the consequences of their actions, is I feel as meet and proper as is compensation for the sick and bereaved.
Christopher Briggs, Norway
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