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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 08:44 GMT
Food safety

Food safety remains high on the agenda with the continued fall-out from the BSE crisis and the establishment of a new agency.

Since 1996, when the government announced a probable link between Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and the human brain disease new variant Creutzfeld Jakobs disease (vCJD), about 4.5 million cattle have been slaughtered at a cost to the public purse of more than 1.4bn.

Approximately 100 people have died and fears persist that many thousands more will suffer the same fate.

The BSE epidemic peaked in 1992/93 when more than 1,000 cases were being reported each week. Today, it is at its lowest level since records began in 1988 with around 30 cases a week.

BSE was a campaign issue in 1997 with both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats accusing the Conservative government of incompetence and neglecting its duty to protect the public.

Shortly after Labour took power, a new scientific study identified the causal link between BSE and vCJD.

This prompted the government to ban sales of beef-on-the-bone and launch a two-year inquiry, costing an estimated 27m.

In October 2000, that inquiry, headed by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, was clear in its conclusions.

The whole approach and behaviour of departments and individuals will need to change to ensure that the lessons identified by the inquiry are properly absorbed and implemented

Philips Report into BSE
It said that the methods of intensive farming, which had allowed the feeding of processed animal remains to cattle, had proved a recipe for disaster.

The inquiry said that the then Conservative government did not lie about BSE, but had been "preoccupied with preventing an alarmist over-reaction", a state of panic which led to failings by ministers, civil servants and whole departments.

Responding to the report, the government initially announced a new compensation package for families of victims and stressed that it had set up the Food Standards Agency to help avoid history repeating itself.

But, to the anger of many of the families, agriculture secretary Nick Brown said that there would be no action against civil servants because "it was an institutional failure and a political failure across the government".


The unanswerable question is how many people will die of vCJD?

Official figures reveal that the death rate is rising slowly but steadily and stands at just under 100 confirmed victims.

The people from the Conservative government only apologised because they felt they had to ... they didn't apologise before [the report] because that would have been an admission.

John Keleghar, father of vCJD victim
There were 26 vCJD deaths in 2000, almost double the number in 1999.

The Wellcome Trust has predicted 136,000 eventual deaths, significantly lower than initial estimates of 500,000 victims.

In economic terms, the cost has been huge. In the first year after the EU lifted the ban on British beef in 1998, the UK only managed to recover 1% of its previous European market, just 5m worth of exports.

At home the picture has been better, with British consumers appearing to support the industry by giving it an 81% share of the market.


Fears do remain. The Labour government's first attempt to persuade the EU to lift the ban on British beef in 1998 failed despite scientific support for the UK's case.

The second attempt succeeded on condition that the UK implemented a tracking scheme which was introduced nationwide in August 1999.

France, however, still refuses to allow imports, a decision that breaks EU law.

The government's response [to the French beef ban] has veered from irrelevance and hostility at worst to complacency and inaction at best

Conservative agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo
Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have criticised the government's handling of the French ban, accusing Nick Brown of being weak and ineffectual.

Despite France's determination to block British beef, it has emerged that contaminated French meat has reached the country's own butchers, while there have been confirmations of BSE in Germany, Portugal and Ireland.

Globally, the World Health Organisation is monitoring both China and Russia for possible vCJD cases.

Back at home, scientists have warned of a small but theoretical risk of transmission of vCJD through medical instruments used in dentistry and tonsil operations.


Labour pledged to establish a Food Standards Agency which it said would be a "major step towards improving food safety and restoring lasting public confidence".

Established little more than year ago, it's primary aims are to:

  • Provide advice and information to the public and to government
  • Protect consumers through effective enforcement and monitoring
  • Support consumer choice through better food labelling

    Consumer groups broadly welcomed the agency.

    They had long lobbied for a separate body, arguing that there was a conflict of interest at the Ministry of Agriculture because it had to serve both the industry and the end-consumer.

    The agency is unique among government departments because its staff are answerable to a board not a minister. It can also publish the advice that it gives to ministers.

    However, the FSA has not been without controversy.

    Originally the government wanted to shift the burden of its funding onto the industry - a proposal that was later dropped.


    One controversy that has dogged Labour and is guaranteed to remain high on the agenda is genetically-modified food.

    In 1998, a report by a renowned geneticist, Dr Arpad Pusztai, claimed to have found evidence that GM potatoes retarded growth in rats and lowered the immune system.

    I felt a strong moral obligation to do something ... my belief was that GM organisms were capable of spreading from that field and that could be a process which would be unstoppable

    Greenpeace's Lord Melchett on why he destroyed a GM crop, April 2000
    Dr Pusztai was subsequently suspended and later retired and the Royal Society attacked his findings as being without validity.

    But a significant number of scientists are still prepared to publicly support his findings and Dr Pusztai himself continues his campaign on the internet.

    The issue did not remain one of mere scientific debate.

    In 1999 Prime Minister Tony Blair gave his backing to the GM industry, saying that the UK's potential to be a world leader in biotechnology was being jeopardised by "scaremongering".

    Yet the public appear divided on the issue.

    Greenpeace has done more than its fair share to keep the issue in the public eye after its head, Lord Melchett, and 28 other people were charged with destroying a GM crop. They were later discharged after a jury failed to reach a verdict.

    Retailers appear weary of GM foods in the wake of continued campaigning by environmental groups and the increasingly popularity of organic produce.

    But one of the problems, say scientists, is that they need more evidence of the effects of GM crops on the environment.

    The government argues that these tests are vital if scientists are to reach a conclusion on the safety of genetically-modified organisms.

    For now, a truce appears to have been called with Greenpeace saying that it will not sabotage trials currently going ahead.


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