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The BBC's Richard Bilton
"Professor Pennington's views have been supported by farmers' leaders"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK
Ministers blamed for food crises
Packs of beef
The lessons of BSE "have not yet been learnt"
One of the UK's leading food safety experts has blamed the government for the scale of such diseases as BSE, foot-and-mouth and e-coli.

Professor Hugh Pennington, of Aberdeen University, says the lessons of the outbreaks have still not been learned.

And he said that without "root and branch reform", another disaster was waiting to happen.


Have we learned the lessons of this and applied them so that another BSE-like catastrophe couldn't happen again? Not yet

Professor Hugh Pennington
Speaking at BBC Radio 4's Food Programme awards on Wednesday, Professor Pennington criticised the use of scientific advice by policymakers.

He said the same criticisms had been made in Lord Phillips' report, published last October, into the BSE crisis.

"Have we learned the lessons of this and applied them so that another BSE-like catastrophe couldn't happen again? Not yet," he said.

He praised the setting-up of the Food Standards Agency, and the way it has been practising openness "with deliberate zeal".

But he criticised secrecy and infighting amongst government departments and civil servants.

Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Pennington wants more scientific knowledge in government
Professor Hugh Pennington said his biggest worry was that government ministers were simply not capable of understanding the scientific advice they were given.

"It seems to be almost the rule that the scientific education of those destined to be permanent secretaries or government ministers must finish at puberty," he said.

"We haven't got the relationship between science and government right yet."

He said the scientific community had plenty of foreknowledge about the particular strain of foot-and-mouth which hit the UK in February.

'Lack of understanding'

"So we should have been prepared and able to raise our defences... without having to hire outside scientists in a hurry well after the outbreak had started," he said.

He said the Phillips inquiry into BSE had also identified a lack of understanding by government departments of what was going on on the ground.

Officials responsible for policy-making did not know what was happening in feed mills or in abattoirs, he said.


Without root and branch reform in the way policymakers get and use scientific advice, there will be big trouble ahead

Professor Pennington
And that scenario had been repeated with the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

"This has happened again with Maff admitting that it was completely taken by surprise at the level and degree of sheep movement that was going on," he said.

"But it was its business to know".

He said the government must urgently address these problems, before more food-borne bugs arrive.

"Without root and branch reform in the way policymakers get and use scientific advice, there will be big trouble ahead," he said.

"At the end of the day nothing less than root-and-branch reform of the civil service will do.

"A good start would be some top jobs going to people who know more about science."

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See also:

21 Dec 00 | Europe
Austria bans German beef
15 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Pledge to avoid repeat of BSE scandal
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