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BSE Friday, 6 November, 1998, 18:48 GMT
Medical officer tells of BSE secrecy
Sir Donald said he had wrongly declared "no risk" from British beef
Former Chief Medical Officer Sir Donald Acheson has told the BSE Inquiry in London that the government kept him in the dark about the possible risks to human health from beef.

He said the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) allowed a six-month delay before it informed him of the risks associated with the disease.

Sir Donald - who was in charge of advising the government on health from 1983 until his retirement in 1991 - is the second former Chief Medical Officer to claim Maff officials were too reassuring over BSE.

Sir Kenneth Calman, who held the same post from 1991 until September this year, said that Maff had sought to reasssure him that by introducing bans on high-risk cattle parts, the public would not be at risk of exposure to BSE.

In his submission to the inquiry last month, he said his major concern was that all public health advice since 1990 had been based on the assumption that the ban was working - and this was now being called into question.

John Gummer with daughter eating burger
Sir Donald did not approve John Gummer's statement that beef was "perfectly safe"
Those listening to Sir Donald's evidence at the inquiry on Friday believe he was sidelined.

Julie Sheppard of the Consumers Association said: "He wasn't able to translate his commitment to protect public health throughout this crisis into action.

"That was because Maff were running the show and they were far more concerned about reassuring the public about the safety of beef and protecting British exports."

Sir Donald said he warned ministers and senior civil servants in 1988 about the dangers of eating beef and that he regretted not going earlier to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, about recruiting an expert to look into BSE.

He added that he did not approve a statement by the then Agriculture Minister, John Gummer, that BSE was "perfectly safe".

But Sir Donald himself admitted using the wrong words in a May 1990 press statement aimed at reassuring the public of the safety of British beef.

He said: "There is no risk associated with eating British beef."

But at the inquiry he revealed that his statement should have read that "there is no scientific justification for not eating British beef".

He said: "Instead of saying no scientific justification, I said no risk.

"I should not have done that because the advice from my groups (experts) was that there was a remote risk and not no risk."

Sir Donald criticised the "incessant" cutbacks and reviews which were being carried out on the Civil Service during his time as chief medical officer.

He said about 25% of his work included "defending my people against more cuts", a task which dragged him away from his work tackling the BSE crisis.

Government advisers clash

Sir Donald also clashed with former Chief Veterinary Officer Keith Meldrum over allegations that the human risks from BSE were wrongly played down.

He attacked the former chief veterinary officer for comments Mr Meldrum made during a meeting with leaders of the farming industry in June 1988.

Mr Meldrum had told the 1988 meeting that Sir Donald "advised that no immediate action was called for" to deal with the problem.

But when it was put to Sir Donald at Friday's hearings that he had felt no cause for concern 10 years ago, he replied that it was "absolutely not the case".

And in his written evidence to the inquiry, Sir Donald said there was tension over the handling of the crisis between the Department of Health and Maff.

He accused Maff of being unnecessarily secretive, and he sensed a conflict of interest between the ministry's role as sponsors of the food industry and its responsibility for food safety.

BBC News
Environment Correspondent Margaret Gilmore looks at the issues surrounding Sir Donald
BBC News
Margaret Gilmore reports from the BSE inquiry
BBC News
Sir Donald warned ministers of BSE risks as soon as he learned of them in 1988, reports Duncan Kennedy
See also:

01 Feb 99 | Farming in Crisis
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