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1990: Gummer enlists daughter in BSE fight

VIDEO : BBC news report on the crisis

The government has again attempted to reassure the public that British beef is safe, despite growing fears over the cattle disease, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

The Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, even invited newspapers and camera crews to photograph him trying to feed a beefburger to his four-year-old daughter, Cordelia, at an event in his Suffolk constituency.

Although his daughter refused the burger, he took a large bite himself, saying it was "absolutely delicious".


"Beef can be eaten safely by everyone, both adults and children, including patients in hospital"

Chief Medical Officer Sir Donald Acheson

His reassurances were echoed by the government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, in a formal statement to underline his previous assertions that beef is safe to eat.

He said that after taking advice from leading scientific and medical experts, he had no hesitation in saying that "beef can be eaten safely by everyone, both adults and children, including patients in hospital".

The number of cases of BSE in cattle has shot up since the first case in 1986, and now stands at about 14,000, despite a government policy to slaughter all infected animals and prevent them getting into the food chain.

Fears have been mounting that the disease can jump species to cause the fatal human brain condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

The rising concern has led to 20 education authorities taking the decision to boycott beef products, taking beef off the menu in hundreds of schools across the country.

The Commons Agriculture Select Committee is to carry out an urgent inquiry into the possible threat to humans from BSE. It will report by the end of July, and Mr Gummer is to give evidence at its first session.

The Committee's chairman, Conservative MP Jerry Wiggin, is a former junior agriculture minister.

He said he considered there was no threat to humans from "properly cooked beef", and criticised local education authorities who had taken it out of school canteens.

The Labour Party's spokesman on agriculture, David Clark, however, said the government's handling of the BSE crisis had been a fiasco and showed it was incapable of handling sensitive food issues.

In Context
By 1992, three cows in every 1,000 in Britain had BSE.

John Gummer's attention-grabbing photocall rebounded dramatically when, in 1996, the government was finally forced to admit there was a link between BSE and the human form of the disease, new variant CJD.

The EU banned the export of British beef - a ban that was not completely lifted for ten years - and the cattle market collapsed as selective culls were carried out of cattle most at risk.

The photocall became the single thing that is most remembered about John Gummer's political career, and "doing a Gummer" has now passed into parliamentary slang.

It may have turned him into a figure of fun, but he was not officially criticised, and remained in Prime Minister John Major's cabinet until Labour took power in 1997.

He then transferred to the Conservative Party backbenches, to speak out regularly on "green" issues such as global warming and town planning.


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