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Tuesday, 29 August, 2000, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
BSE: The long search for the facts

Some abattoirs did not stick to the regulations
The official inquiry into BSE was set up at the end of 1997 and it finished the second phase of its investigation earlier this year. The inquiry will present its report to the government in the Autumn.

At the end of the BSE hearings in 1999 Lord Phillips, the inquiry committee chairman, said: "It is now for us to prepare a report which... identifies what went right and what went wrong and draws attention to the lessons to be learned for the future.

"These lessons must help Government to rebuild trust in the systems that protect both human and animal health."

The first phase

The first phase, which dealt only with factual evidence, ran from March until December 1998. It took oral evidence from more than 300 witnesses, and published more than 400 written statements.

The phase two hearings investigated the evidence further, addressed criticisms and recalled witnesses.

The inquiry was established to "review the history of the emergence and identification of BSE and new variant CJD in the United Kingdom, and of the action taken in response to it up to 20 March 1996".

Careers under scrutiny

That was the date of the government's announcement that its scientists suspected a link between BSE, "mad cow disease", and the new form of CJD, the human equivalent.

Many reputations under the microscope at the inquiry, both politicians' and civil servants'.

Much of the evidence during the first phase sounded like protestations by the witnesses. Whoever else might be culpable, many said, they certainly were not.

Ministers believed in beef. Were they wrong?
The inquiry has said it does not seek to apportion blame, though relatives of those who have died of CJD may hope it will give them the basis for compensation claims.

And if it seems easy now to name the guilty parties, it was not so at the time.

The inquiry has to judge the adequacy of the official response to BSE, "taking into account the knowledge at the time".

That is a crucial qualification, because ministers did act on their scientists' advice, and sometimes did even more.

A journalist who has followed the inquiry closely says: "You keep asking yourself when you hear the evidence - what else could they have done?"

Specific failures

The inquiry has heard evidence that the BSE epidemic is unlikely to have been triggered by the changes in rendering processes, which are often blamed.

In two areas, though, it is now clear that the government should have done more.

It was cutting expenditure on research and development, something which did damage the fight against BSE.

And it did not make sure that the regulations it enacted were enforced where it mattered, chiefly in all slaughterhouses.

The inquiry was due to deliver its report by 31 March 2000 - but because of the volume of evidence it was granted a six-month extension.

The committee chairman Lord Phillips said that in order to produce "a clear and readable account of the BSE story" more time was needed.

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See also:

25 May 99 | UK Politics
BSE report put back to 2000
01 Dec 98 | UK Politics
BSE 'thunderbolt' to MP's career
08 Dec 98 | UK Politics
Gummer - why I called beef safe
16 Dec 98 | UK Politics
Hogg's advice 'ignored' on BSE
06 May 99 | UK Politics
No regrets on BSE - Thatcher
Links to more BSE Inquiry stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more BSE Inquiry stories