BSE Inquiry out in the open

The results of the UK government's BSE Inquiry were published on Thursday 26 October, implicating civil servants and scientists in the health scandal.

By | October 26, 2000

LONDON. After a six month delay, the Findings and Conclusions of the UK government's Inquiry into BSE and variant CJD in the United Kingdom were made public at noon today. The inquiry process, which took almost three years to complete, has highlighted flawed science and inadequate communication as major factors contributing to one of the UK's biggest public health scandals for decades.

One of the fault lines in the government's treatment of the BSE scare lies between MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and the scientists involved in the research. Ministers involved were only reacting to scientific fact and not scientific suspicion. As a result, early warnings were ignored because they could not be substantiated.

The first BSE working party was set up by MAFF in 1988 under Sir Richard Southwood. Neither Southwood nor his three colleagues had active research experience of spongiform diseases and their findings were based only on available evidence rather than detailed analysis. The BSE Inquiry Findings and Conclusions names the Southwood Working Party in its annex of Individual Criticisms and blames them for giving the reader of their report "a false impression." They should have made it clear that, "in describing the risk as remote, they were intending to indicate that steps should be made to reduce the risk so that it was as low as reasonably practicable."

Although the inquiry report states that the Southwood Working Party made "wise recommendations" in relation to its research, it appears that their words of warning were not strong enough to provoke a reaction. The Working Party commented that if their assessment was incorrect, the implications would be extremely serious. However, the government was less than receptive to any hint at danger since, according to the BSE Inquiry, it was "preoccupied with preventing an alarmist over-reaction to BSE."

The Conservative government of the day is identified in the report as having misled people by denying any risk to humans. Government ministers and civil servants repeated the comments of Dr Robert Kendal — Chief Medical Officer for Scotland — that "there is no evidence that eating beef or other foods derived from beef is dangerous." This led to years of unease and distrust.

Influential figures claimed that their standpoint was "based on advice from the Southwood and Tyrell Committees." Yet the Tyrell Report identified the risk of BSE through cosmetics as early as 1989. The fight against BSE was severely weakened by the government's reduction in expenditure on scientific research. In addition, the regulations made by the government, primarily regarding activity in slaughterhouses, were not enforced.

Lord Justice Phillips, chairman of the inquiry, spoke of the lessons that are to be learned from the Inquiry and the need for the Government "to rebuild trust in the systems that protect both human and animal health." Although specific names have been mentioned, it is recognised that the government's method of researching facts and making them public must come under review. This will be the task of the present government.

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