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Monday, November 23, 1998 Published at 15:33 GMT

UK Politics

BSE - The political fallout

John and Cordelia Gummer: Reassured the public beef was safe

Less than a decade ago, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was a political backwater for politicians who had suffered a sideways move.

The highest profile most incumbents could achieve was opening the Royal Show in the summer or the Royal Smithfield Show in the winter.

Farming in Crisis
But in recent years, the job has increasingly become high profile as ministers are called to account over health scares and, particularly, the beef crisis.

In the next few weeks, past incumbents at MAFF will give evidence to the BSE Inquiry about the extent of their knowledge of the disaster.

Many became synonymous with the government's failing attempts to reassure the public as their post became an unforgiving job - and no more so than John Selwyn Gummer.

Mr Gummer famously fed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger in 1990 to prove how safe beef as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy began to hit the headlines.

[ image: William Waldegrave: A farmer]
William Waldegrave: A farmer
BSE had been identified in 1986 - two years later, the government asked Professor Richard Southwood to report on the disease.

In 1989, his report found it was "most unlikely that BSE will have any implications for human health". But, 15 months later, a surveillance unit for Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease - the human equivalent of BSE - was established in Edinburgh.

'Perfectly safe'

Mr Gummer was followed at MAFF by Gillian Shephard, MP for rural South West Norfolk, - the UK's first female Agriculture Minister for Agriculture.

"She has mud on her boots," John Major told colleagues at her appointment in 1993.

[ image: Douglas Hogg: Survived censure motion]
Douglas Hogg: Survived censure motion
Yet only a year later, Mrs Shephard moved on to Education and was succeeded by William Waldegrave, whose appointment was warmly greeted by farmers.

At the time, Mr Waldegrave, son of the 12th Earl of Waldegrave farmed 500 cows on 1,000 acres of land rented from his brother Lord Chewton.

But he came under fire when he revealed calves from the family farm ended up in continental veal creates that are illegal in Britain.

And it was not long before the Eton-educated Douglas Hogg was moved into the post, where he stayed for the last years of the Tory government.

In that time, the man in the fedora received a barrage of criticism - from both the European Union and farmers.

In 1995, he repeated John Gummer's assertion he was happy for his children to eat beef.

Hogg cull

At the time, the government was repeating assurances there was no evidence that BSE could spread to people in the form of CJD

However, the following year the government began to brace itself for the fact a large part of the country's dairy herd might have to be destroyed to restore public confidence.

McDonalds had stopped serving British beef and Sir Richard Southwood, author of that 1989 report, accused the government of complacency.

[ image: Dr Jack Cunningham: Banned beef on the bone]
Dr Jack Cunningham: Banned beef on the bone
Mr Hogg rejected any criticism the government had acted too slowly: "My predecessors and my department have done everything that we ought to have done fully and properly."

Yet his reassurances failed to impress the European Union who imposed a ban on British beef exports in March 1996.

"Cull Hogg" was regularly seen on farmers' placards.

In April of 1996, the government revealed its BSE action plan although it did not stop Liberal Democrat MPs tabling a censure motion criticising Mr Hogg's handling of the beef crisis.

In 1997, Mr Hogg was awarded a certificate of merit by the Vegetarian Society.

This was based on the fact his handling of the beef crisis led to a leap in the number of vegetarians.

His time at MAFF led to Mr Hogg becoming one of the most recognised members of the government before it fell in the 1997 general election.

Labour's time

His Labour replacement Dr Jack Cunningham refused to commit himself to any target date for lifting the EU ban but approached it on a step-by-step basis, starting with Northern Ireland.

[ image: Nick Brown: Announced aid package]
Nick Brown: Announced aid package
A few months in to the job and Dr Jack Cunningham was receiving some support from farmers.

Then came the ban of beef on the bone last year to eliminate all risks of BSE entering the food chain.

"He's an ignorant pig and he won't listen to our point of view," said one farmer of Dr Cunningham.

An effigy of Dr Cunningham was strung up by farmers who asked if he and Mr Hogg were really the same man.

There was genuine bewilderment that the government could ban beef on the bone while permitting the import of beef from countries which have BSE infections but fewer precautions.

His successor in this summer's reshuffle was chief whip Nick Brown, whose inner-city Newcastle constituency contains three farms.

He said: "One of them's a city farm, which has one cow. It has long horns and long hair - I think it's Scottish."

Any progress Mr Brown has achieved at MAFF were overshadowed in November when he was forced to admit his homosexuality.

But since then Mr Brown has barely been seen without his wellies and within weeks the admission was overshadowed by the announcement of a £120m aid package for farmers.

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