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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
Beckett denies BSE cover-up
British sheep
There is a 'theoretical risk' of BSE in sheep
Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett has rejected claims that she tried to bury the news of confusion over whether scientists were testing sheep or cows brains for BSE.

Mrs Beckett told MPs on Monday that she decided, against the advice of her press office, that a media release should be put out late at night to publish the information as soon as possible.

I was convinced that the information would leak, I didn't want the slightest hint of a cover-up

Margaret Becket

A four year investigation into whether sheep could be infected with BSE was dropped last week when the scientist at the centre of the mix-up discovered he was mistakenly testing cows brains.

But confusion deepened when Mrs Beckett suggested that the sample sent to the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC), where the mix-up was discovered, might not have been the same as that used in the original experiments.

Shadow rural affairs secretary Peter Ainsworth said the incident showed the government's "ruthless attitude to news management" and accused ministers of failing to "come clean" in the news release, which Mrs Beckett said she had written.

Explaining the timing of that news release, Mrs Beckett said: "I was convinced that the information would leak, I didn't want the slightest hint of a cover-up."

The rural affairs secretary stressed that no trace of BSE had been found in sheep, but said it was too early to draw firm conclusions from on-going research.

But she repeated the independent Food Standards Agency's advice that there was "no reason why consumers should not eat sheep meat".

'No government embarrassment'

Mrs Beckett said the "embarrassment and dismay" over the confusion was felt not by the government, but among the independent experts commissioned to carry out the research.

Branding Mr Ainsworth's comments as "disgracefully irresponsible", she said: "What is it for which I am supposed to apologise?"

The minister insisted there was "no intention to conceal or to mislead".

Mrs Beckett explained that an independent audit was underway into what had happened with the experiments.

In any case, the research was not going to give a definitive answer on whether there was BSE in sheep now - it "could only have reduced the uncertainties".

Margaret Beckett
Beckett has faced opposition attacks

Mr Ainsworth referred to the controversy caused by Transport Department spin doctor Jo Moore's controversial e-mail on the day of the US terror attacks.

He spoke of a "a concerted attempt - in Jo Moore's shameful phrase - to bury another embarrassing story from a department becoming famous for its gaffes and incompetence".

'Complacent reaction'

Mr Ainsworth continued: "We've been treated to a staggering display of complacency, not a word of regret.

"Your handling of this whole issue has been quite frankly appalling and the day this Government expresses embarrassment or dismay for any of its incompetences will be a red letter day indeed."
Sir John Krebs
Krebs says public reassurance is needed

Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman Malcolm Bruce told MPs Mrs Beckett's department suffered from "very low morale, very low motivation and, frankly in many cases, very poor calibre decision-making management".

He told the minister she had a responsibility to put those problems right so there could be confidence that her department was capable to commissioning research that would deliver results.

The scientific trial was to discover whether a BSE-like agent was in the sheep flock. A positive result, without the mix-up being discovered, could have led to millions of UK sheep being culled.

'Consistent advice'

The Food Standards Agency met on Monday to discuss the debacle, with chairman Sir John Krebs saying urgent public reassurance was needed quickly.

He continued: "Agency advice has been consistent - there is no reason to avoid the consumption of lamb.

"But the theoretical risk remains and there is an urgent need to reduce the uncertainty on BSE in sheep and look at whether further precautionary measures are needed."

The BBC's Niall Dickson
"No one has found BSE in the national flock but in theory it could be there"
Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett
"There was no attempt to mislead"
Jim Scudamore, Chief Veterinary Officer
"The system has got to be looked at"





See also:

22 Oct 01 | UK
BSE mix-up lab shifts blame
20 Oct 01 | Health
FSA admits error over baby food
18 Oct 01 | UK
Sheep BSE research 'flawed'
28 Sep 01 | UK
Q&A: BSE in sheep
09 Feb 01 | UK
UK condemns BSE secrecy
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