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Wednesday, June 10, 1998 Published at 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK

How mad cow disease hit the beef industry

Can the meat industry bounce back after a £4bn blow?

Mad cow disease, BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has cost the country dear.

More than 170,000 cattle in England, Scotland and Wales have contracted BSE since 1988.

BBC Environment correspondent Richard Wilson on the impact of the beef ban.
More than a million unwanted calves have been slaughtered, and more than two and a quarter million older cattle killed, their remains dumped in case they might be harbouring the infection.

In May, one of the biggest cattle markets, at Banbury in Oxfordshire, closed down. A victim at least in part, of this bizarre crisis.

The total cost of BSE to the taxpayer is set to top £4 billion.

The farmer

Surprisingly, one of the people most involved, Sir Simon Gourlay, president of the National Farmers' Union from 1986 to 1991, thinks his members have cause to be grateful for BSE.

Sir Simon farms both cattle and sheep in the Welsh Marches.

"Farming had a sharp shock coming to it", he told BBC Online.

[ image: BSE 'may do some good']
BSE 'may do some good'
"It had been cushioned by subsidies, living in an unreal world. Many farmers didn't think about what happened beyond the farm gate, because there were always people willing to buy what they produced.

"Now all that's changed. We're thinking harder about how we produce our food, about the impact of what we do.

"The great majority of farmers who hadn't thought about the market place are now having to face up to it.

"So the shock of BSE may in fact do some good, intensifying pressure for a major cultural change that makes us more accountable".

It seems BSE did not come as a shock to shoppers. Beef consumption fell by more than a third just after the government announced, in March 1996, an apparent link between BSE and a new form of the similar human condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

But the Meat and Livestock Commission says beef sales "are now virtually back to pre-crisis levels", and consumption of beef, lamb and pork together has reached record levels.

The slaughterer

Those figures may be deceptive, though. The body which represents Britain's slaughterhouse owners is the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers.

Its general secretary, Peter Scott, says confidence in British beef has recovered "in those cuts that supermarkets sell".

[ image: Hindquarter cuts favoured]
Hindquarter cuts favoured
"But they're now selling only good quality hindquarter cuts. Stewing steak, mince, the sort of meat which goes into pies, all the cheaper stuff is not recovering so well."

Scott says the BSE crisis "was a serious blow to confidence in British meat. But we've recovered".

And the industry's been saved by the supermarkets, the key to driving up standards.

"They want uniformly high-quality animals", he explains.

"Couple that with the pressure from Brussels for traceability, for recording every single relevant fact about an animal's history, and you have what happens now: a supermarket manager looks at his computer and can tell the farmers which individual animals should go for slaughter tomorrow".

The policy makers

Not everybody, though, sees BSE as a storm successfully weathered.

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University, says it has "without a shadow of a doubt brought to a head a simmering crisis over intensive agriculture", the system of producing as much as possible, in whatever way possible.

That "simmering crisis" continues to worry Ministers and civil servants.

The public inquiry into BSE will report to the Government in June 1999, and could recommend ways of trying to avoid another episode like this.

[ image: The first of many crises?]
The first of many crises?
And few people doubt that there could be another one.

Sir Simon Gourlay says: "The fact that things can go so very wrong just below the surface of daily life makes you realise that it can happen elsewhere."

There is also the planned new safety body, the Food Standards Agency.

It could affect BSE policy. But don't hold your breath.

Dr Erik Millstone, of the University of Sussex, thinks it's Yes, Minister all over again.

"Some civil servants are quite good at controlling their Ministers. and someone's decided that change on BSE will be only incremental. Whitehall is making the running, not the Government."

The final bill for BSE is yet to be presented.

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10 Jun 98†|†UK
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