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BSE Wednesday, 28 October, 1998, 14:48 GMT
Consumer groups attack 'BSE secrecy'
Beef on sale
Consumer groups have warned shoppers of the dangers
Consumer groups have told the BSE inquiry of their struggle to warn ministers working in an "atmosphere of secrecy" about the dangers of beef.

The groups said the government's eventual admission that there was a danger in 1996 was "too little, too late".

The public inquiry investigating BSE heard that "flawed" official predictions underestimated the extent of the problem in the UK's cattle herds.

Consumer watchdogs were made to sign the Official Secrets Act and told to disregard the views of anti-government scientists who were warning of crisis.

A joint statement from Dr John Beishon, the former director of the Consumers' Association, and his former assistant, Derek Prentice, detailed how relations between the CA and Maff broke down as concern over BSE grew.

Mr Prentice said: "Our recollection is that CA first became aware of the BSE issue late in 1987. We were, however, already concerned at the attitude of the government in general and Maff in particular in relation to a number of food safety issues."

In the case of an earlier salmonella outbreak, he said government advice appeared to blame consumers for risks and "completely failed to address the real cause of the problem, namely the farming and industry practices at the time".

He added: "The official responses were, in our view, too little and too late. In our opinion the attitude of some of the civil servants seemed to border on contempt for consumer organisations.

"We found there was a total lack of openness at Maff which had a regime that regarded even the most trivial piece of information as confidential or even secret."

Criticism 'unpatriotic'

Another witness, Suzi Leather, sat on Maff's panel from its inception in 1990 until 1995.

She said of the attitudes within Maff at the time: "It seemed as if beef had almost symbolic value for ministers. Certainly they wanted to believe that beef was safe.

"A situation was being created in which it was impossible to voice criticism without being labelled unpatriotic."

The inquiry, which has been sitting in south London since March, will go on to hear evidence from former ministers in power at the time of the crisis.

The allegations came as a top health and nutrition expert warned the government against any delay in setting up a Food Standards Agency following the BSE crisis.

Professor Philip James, of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, who originally proposed a FSA to ministers, spoke out against a hold-up at a Lords select committee meeting.

He said consumer trust "is one of the most difficult things to achieve" and urged more public openness.

Professor James's call came amid speculation that the new watchdog may not appear in the forthcoming Queen's Speech on 24 November.

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28 Oct 98 | BSE
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