The Inside Story of BSE

Prof. Peter Saunders reviews

The Politics of BSE , Richard Packer, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006. ISBN 1-4039-8529-4

BSE transmission to humans admitted after 10 years

It's twenty years since reports first appeared of cattle in the UK coming down with a disease now known as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis). The number of animals affected rapidly increased, and because the disease was both fatal to cattle and also similar to at least two diseases that are fatal to humans, Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD) and kuru, people began to worry about the danger to human health. For ten years, the government kept reassuring the public that there was no risk involved in eating beef. Many of us can still remember how the Secretary of State for Agriculture John Gummer was shown on television feeding a beefburger to his daughter to demonstrate how confident he was that it was safe.

Then, on 20 March 1996, the Secretary of State for Health Stephen Dorell announced that contrary to what he and his fellow ministers had been telling us for the past ten years, BSE can be transmitted to humans and in humans, it leads to an inevitably fatal disease known as variant CJD (vCJD).

That was a bit of a bombshell, with an immediate and lasting effect on public opinion. It probably did more than any other single event to shake the public's confidence in government pronouncements about science, and is one of the major reasons that the British public has steadfastly refused to accept GM food, despite constant insistence by government agencies that the products are “perfectly safe”.

Inside MAFF

The Politics of BSE is a story told by someone who was a senior civil servant in the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) throughout the period leading up to the BSE crisis and its aftermath, and was its Permanent Secretary from 1993 to 2000. Richard Packer describes the events as seen from the inside, combining the care and attention to detail of a Whitehall report with flashes of irony and invective. It's not an unbiased account, given the circumstances you could hardly expect one, but there is a lot to be learned from what Packer writes.

Read the rest of this article here //www.i-sis.org.uk/the-inside-story-of-BSE.php

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