New Statesman & Society, leader 29 March 1996

The BSE scandal is the final nail in the coffin for the Tory government

Forget arms-to-Iraq, cash-for-questions, homes-for-votes in Westminster, or any of the other scandals that various pundits have claimed would mark the beginning of the end for John Major’s shabby administration – mad cow disease trumps them all. The official admission last week that there might, just might, be a connection between bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle and one variant of Creutzfeldt Jakob disease in humans – BSE and CJD – has had a far more dramatic impact in undermining public faith in the government than anything else it has done.

Everywhere, people are asking the same questions. If some respected scientists have been saying for several years that there might be some connection between eating B S E-infected beef and contracting CJD, a fatal neurological illness, why on earth did ministers and their advisers ignore them, claiming beef was entirely safe? Why was the programme for eliminating BSE pursued so half-heartedly? And how many of us are going to die horrible lingering deaths because we took the government’s advice seriously?

Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell’s explanation, that the government was only doing what the scientists on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) suggested it should do, is not good enough. The committee’s membership was chosen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and initially failed to include any public health experts (their appointment last December almost certainly precipitated this month’s warnings over BSE) and was consistently laggard in acknowledging mounting evidence that there is indeed a link. Maff in turn has, until last week, been equally sluggish in implementing Seac’s recommendations.

Even if, like Lord Justice Scott in his report on arms-to-Iraq, we assume that ministers have acted at all times “honestly and in good faith”, the government deserves to be condemned for its absurdly Panglossian optimism, for its rank incompetence and for its extraordinary procrastination. But that is the bare minimum of which it can justifiably be accused. All the evidence points to the conclusion that ministers have not been acting from the purest of motives, but have been pawns throughout of the powerful agribusiness lobby. The most convincing explanation of their behaviour is that, from the first appearance of BSE, they have been less concerned with public health than with maintaining the profitability of Britain’s pampered beef farmers and of the food processing industry. It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that there are nearly 40 Tory MPs with direct interests in farming.

Now, however, the deranged cattle have come home to the cowshed. The past week has seen a collapse in demand for British beef worse than the government’s worst nightmares. Sales of beef in butchers’ shops and supermarkets have slumped, and beef prices at every level are tumbling. McDonald’s and the other big hamburger chains have announced that they will no longer be using British beef, and the export market has vanished, as first Europe and then the rest of the world have put up the shutters. Thousands of workers look set to lose their jobs.

All this is the government’s fault. It is fatuous for John Major to blame Labour “scare-mongering” for the panic that has swept Britain in the past week: people would have been scared whatever the opposition had said, for the simple (and very good) reason that CJD is a frightening disease with no known cure. And now the government must pay the price.

In cash terms, that will be at very least between £400 million and £700 million a year for five years in compensation to farmers – the estimated cost of the (wholly inadequate) compulsory slaughter scheme favoured by the National Farmers’ Union, under which only older dairy cows would be destroyed – and could be as much as £20 billion if every single one of the 11 million cattle in Britain is killed. Politically, the price is likely to be that Major will have to kiss goodbye to any hope of winning the next general election. Whether that means a new government that will tackle the agribusiness lobby head-on, however, is another matter entirely.

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