LONDON –I am stunned at the awfulness of being British at the moment. A report written by Lord Phillips into the BSE tragedy has just been published. Though it does not roar with horror or screech with condemnation, its quiet steady tone fills me with anger and horror at Britain’s farming, veterinary and government processes. The complete evasion of responsibility, the complete inability to think outside one’s own tiny patch, has dumped the British beef industry and the 85 known victims of BSE-related disease into a world of trouble.
For what emerges from the painstaking pages of the 16 volumes of the Phillips report is that there is no one person, no one practice, no one “villain or scapegoat” for, in Phillips words, this “peculiarly British disaster.” Rather, this horribly unnatural disease that has cut British dairy herds from 63,000 to 33,400 in 10 years, and so far killed 80 people under 55 years of age, has flourished in Britain’s culture of government fear and secrecy, and the food and farming industries’ greed and contempt for quality.
The history of BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had such a tiny, blameless beginning. Sometime in the early 1970s, one cow in a British herd produced a mutated gene — this is quite common; this gene was responsible for brain protein. The cow was slaughtered and ground up and sold to the animal-food industry. This was in Britain, and in all countries with industrialized agricultures, standard practice. The animal feed was fed back to cows. The cows ate their own, rendered into dried pellets. Thousands of miniscule fragments of the original cow with a mutated gene were eaten by other cows, which then developed BSE.
In 1984, the first cow developed what we now recognize to be the distinctive symptoms of BSE — staggering gait, collapsing limbs and distressed behavior. The cow had strange lesions on its brain. In 1985, the chief veterinary laboratory identified BSE.
And here begins the wretched tale of secrecy, of walls of silence between different units of the state, of government officers having no desire to share information, to speculate with others about what might be the causes and consequences of this peculiar phenomenon. It was worse that just lack of desire. Although some government veterinary scientists did write up this new phenomenon for publication, in 1987 the chief veterinary officer banned the publication of their article in the Veterinary Record. By this time an estimated 50,000 cows were infected, all of their remains being recycled for human and animal feed.
The following year, 1988, the Ministry of Agriculture finally informed the chief medical officer of what it had known for some time: that there might be a risk to human health from eating cows diseased by BSE. The government ordered a report. The subsequent study, carried out by a committee under Sir Richard Southwood, concluded that there was a theoretical risk of this animal disease being transmitted to humans, but it was very remote. “Remote” became, in official thinking, “nonexistent except for silly, hysterical persons.” Nonetheless, in the next two years, the passing of slaughtered, infected cows into the food chain was restricted.
The number of cows infected by BSE continued to rise (it did not peak until 1992-93). Then, in 1990, scientists at Bristol University identified BSE as the cause of death in a cat. Here was evidence the strange disease could jump species through food. There was a new flurry of insistences, of reassurances, from government ministers that British beef was absolutely safe to eat. Meanwhile, among British people, especially those who frequented veterinary surgeries for their pets, popular rumor spread the information that BSE could kill their pets, if not their children.
Some local authorities risked government wrath by banning beef from school menus. Tory government ministers and health officers repeated their reassurances that there was no risk to humans in eating British beef. When asked why by Lord Phillips, they said they had not wanted to cause panic; when asked why they had not consulted each other, they said they had not wanted to cause leaks. Protecting the government system of knowing best, of departmental status and autonomy, was their absolute priority. Protecting the British citizen from harm came nowhere.
In 1994, scientists made their most alarming discovery: The amount of infected food it took to transmit BSE was no larger than a pepper corn. The following year, the first case of a new variant of BSE that could kill a human being was diagnosed. In March 1996, Health Minister Stephen Dorrell announced that eating beef could kill us, and a few weeks later the European Union, accompanied by Japan and the United States, announced a ban on the import of British beef.
The BSE scandal became a metaphor for government’s relation to truth, to commerce and to the people. It undoubtedly contributed to the fall of the Conservative government. It has also undoubtedly caused the near-destruction of the British cattle industry and the death of perhaps many thousands of British citizens. What else can one feel, but shame, horror and a deep anger?
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