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Prof Richard Lacey on Breakfast with Frost in 1996
talking about the government reaction to BSE
 real 56k

Prof Richard Lacey on Breakfast with Frost in 1996
discussing deaths from BSE
 real 56k

Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 17:47 GMT
Professor Richard Lacey quizzed

To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:


Professor Lacey, the scientist who warned of the dangers of BSE before the crisis was revealed by the Government, said that there had been a "systematic cover-up" by the government and scientists about the dangers in the food Britons eat.

Does he think the problems with BSE and salmonella and the most recent fears about foot- and-mouth disease are a result of how food is produced in this country. What is the solution to making sure the food we eat is safe?


Professor Lacey:
We will have to spend more money on it, over the years we have gone in for cheap meat and farmers have cut corners in order the meat cheap, we have gone into big scale farming and so really what I would like us to work towards, particularly with meat, is local production, local abattoirs, local butchers and of course it will be more expensive but if there is a crisis it can be sorted out locally. It is this transporting animals hundreds of miles on a daily basis that spreads infections around.

News host:
Who should be leading that move back to local prod, I mean is that something the consumer should lead?

Professor Lacey:
I think the consumer and perhaps the Food Standards Agency but I'll tell you what the problem is, anything that puts up the price of food, adversely affects the Retail Price Index and that is inflationary, so what I would like to see first of all is the assesment of food costs to include all the items so if people ate better but rather more expensive meat in small amounts, the extra food in the diet, perhaps potatoes, vegetables and rice would be cheaper so the total effect would be neutral and therefore the government could well support it. At the moment the government is frightened of anything that is inflationary.

Barry Jones, Wales:
Is the risk to humans greater from foot-and-mouth than from BSE?

Professor Lacey:
As far as I know there is virtually no evidence that the virus that causes foot-and-mouth infects people and that is good news. It is highly contagious for cattle, sheep, pigs we do know that the BSE agent is the same agent that cause vCJD so that is definite whereas the foot-and-mouth we are talking about entirely an agricultural, farming problem.

Nick Edell, UK:
The Independent last Sunday took the angle that foot and mouth is not a very serious disease and that the reason that such a fuss has been made about it is that it reduces milk/meat output by about 20% from animals that are infected. If this is the case, why are we slaughtering 10's of thousands of animals?

Professor Lacey:
That is absolutely right, most animals in infected do actually recover and it is a damaging effect on the amount of meat and volume of milk. Now we can do one of two things and this is a Eurpoean wide policy on slaughter, we can either sort of live with it or we can vaccinate as alternatives. Both of those are costly. It is actually cheaper to slaughter out even tens of hundreds of thousands of animals perhaps every 20 years or so than regularly vaccinate all our livestock. It is purely a matter of cost.

News host:
So it is just a matter of cost. If we were vaccinating would we be able to eradicate in the same way?

Professor Lacey:
We wouldn't have the disease, it wouldn't be there but we would have to keep it up. Once you start vaccinate you have to carry on year after year, all the new animals. So when you are talking about pigs being slaughtered say every 6/7 months, then that means twice a year pigs have to be vaccinated. It would be very, very expensive

News host:
Which would have an effect on the meat price.

Professor Lacey:
That's right, it would have more than an affect. So it would be very expensive. So in fact although its very uncomfortable to do this and it is a horrible sight to see it is actually in the long term, cheaper than the vaccine .

News host:
But if we were to move more towards your idea of producing our food locally there would be a cost implication in that as well but that may be the better one.

Professor Lacey:
Well, the local food production would actually be healthier in general. Now foot-and-mouth is just one problem, BSE is another. In the last ten or 15 years it is extraordinary that in the UK we have had these two very serious outbreaks in the UK which have now spread to other countries, there must be something seriously wrong with our husbandry.

Christine Hughes, UK:
Will there ever be a time when our meat is completely safe?

Professor Lacey:
As the farmers say correctly nothing is absolutely safe all the time, particularly if people eat too much of it. I would like people to eat rather less meat and it would be better. I think that to make it absolutely guaranteed free of infective agents like salmonella, listeria and so on, the actual cost would be prohibitive, whereas if we had ethical local husbandry and local shops people would know the farms and will feel much happier. Whereas the centralised production of food processing, people don't know really where the meat comes from and they lose confidence.

News host:
As the situation is at the moment, is there no local food production/meat production as there was some years ago?

Professor Lacey:
Well, no. Unfortunately various regulations controlling abattoirs, you need vets to inspect we now have a small number of very large abattoirs and there is massive transport of animals so that people do not really know where their meat comes from.

John Hunt, Leicester:
Do you think returning to small scale local production would help prevent these nationwide outbreaks of disease?

Professor Lacey:
Well certainly if you have an outbreak of something like foot-and-mouth on one farm near one village then you just close the area down and that is all you need do. Whereas, trouble is, by the time you know you have got foot-and-mouth it has already spread very widely so you can control easily outs on small farms but once you've got the movement of animals hundreds of miles throughout the country then by the time you have the infection in one area then it has already spread and it is too late to do anything about it really.

Jonathan Fielding, Scotland:
Could the government improve the way it deals with food scares such as BSE, salmonella and foot-and-mouth?

Professor Lacey:
I think the first thing we have got to do is get away from the word scare. The word scare can either mean a real problem that frightens people or it can mean there isn't a problem at all. It is invented by the media, it is hyped up by the media. What I think ought to happen, is the public should be given accurate, honest information onthe scale of risk and so on, at the moment it is a bit better than it was but we are still not really being quite clear and open and honest.

Jenni Clarke:
Do you think the problems with BSE and salmonella and the most recent fears about foot- and-mouth disease are a result of how food is produced in this country?

Professor Lacey:
I think they all are but it is more complicated than that. It is the combination of centralised food production, many animals reared close together, transport, abbatoirs, food processing, all under pressure from the consumer who wants cheap food. Some things are improving.

I'm pleased the culmination of salmonella because the good news and this really is good news but it took 10 years to happen is that from 1998 delaying chickens by 70%, the one's with the lions stamp on the shelves, they have been vaccinated against salmonella and the really good news is that the incidents of salmonella infection due to that strain have dropped in the last two years, only about a third of what it was, so that is some very good news.

News host:
That is good news, these diseases pres exist anyway they are just exacerbated by the way food is produced cheaply, I mean will we be able to eradicate these things completely.

Professor Lacey:
I think in the long term we can get them to very low levels, we will never get rid of salmonella altogether from for example broileries because even if you have the occasional broil of chickens got salmonella, by the time it's been slaughtered it will be spread around in the slaughtering plant and then when it's processed and handled any salmonella will be spread further but we can make it better. I think the attitude of the food producers has been well we cannot really get rid of it completely therefore why bother to do anything. What we can do is for example get the incidents of salmonella in broileries down from say 20% to 2% and that really would be good news.

Clive Tranter:
You were once quoted as predicting that there would be anywhere between 5,000 to 500,000 deaths from variant CJD in this country. Do you still have this view?

Professor Lacey:
It's still impossible to identify how many people are going to die. The worrying thing is how the numbers have gone up over the last year and if the incubation period is up to 20, 30, 40 years and then the possibility of human spread then that sort of range of 5,000 to 500,000 could well happen, I hope I am wrong but I think we must expect certainly more than 1000 cases, the good news is we know now that only a third of the population is vulnerable and also know that the meat is now safer than what it was, it is still not completely better, things are a bit better.

With BSE we have not solved it at the herd level, we are still not doing enough testing and getting rid of the infected herds so the threat is still there. My advice to people is that particularly children and pregnant women and people who have not been exposed to the infected in the past should think very carefully about whether they should be given or eat beef at the moment, there is still a potential hazard, it is better than it was but it is still there.

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23 Feb 01 | UK
No borders for meat trade
27 Oct 00 | Newsnight
BSE discussion transcript
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