BSE: big business and Tories
Report lets guilty men off the hook
By Paul Mcgarr
"SHE HAS been murdered." So said Helen Jeffries as her 14 year old daughter, Zoe, last week became the latest person to die from the human form of BSE. The culprits were big business. They dominate the meat industry that poisoned our food.
They were assisted by successive Tory governments who put profit before safety. They then systematically covered up the crime. Those are the only sane conclusions to draw from the mountain of evidence presented to the BSE inquiry chaired by Lord Phillips which reported last week. No one knows how many more could die from variant CJD, the human form of BSE. The Phillips report warns that it could be as high as 136,000.
Despite the mountain of damning evidence in the detail of his report, in his conclusions Phillips, a former commercial lawyer, lets the meat industry and Tory politicians off scot-free. The origins of BSE are still unclear. But the report says that what turned BSE into an epidemic was using cattle remains as an ingredient in cattle feed. The scale of this practice grew enormously in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct result of cost-cutting to boost profits.
Cattle feed known as MBM is made from ground- up cattle remains. Just five companies dominated MBM production-BOCM Silcock, Dalgety Agriculture, J Bibby, Nitrovit and Pauls Agriculture. Between 1974 and 1988 MBM production grew massively, says the report, "due to financial incentives".
In the early 1980s there was a drive to "the use of MBM in place of the cheaper vegetable protein that had been the main source of protein up until then". This ensured that the BSE infection was recycled in cattle feed throughout Britain.
Scientists quickly established the cause of the BSE epidemic as infected MBM. Yet the government's first reaction was to cover up and suppress research articles written by government scientists. Many of the scientific experts the government looked to also "have their own financial links with companies", says the report. Food scientist Malcolm Povey told Socialist Worker last week, "Food industry patronage extends into every corner of government and research.
"Industry bosses, top civil servants and politicians are on first name terms. The entire food regulation system is designed to protect the food bosses." Though the scale of the crisis eventually forced the government to act, that fundamental attitude never changed throughout the BSE crisis.
"Beef is safe" was the mantra chanted by prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and successive agriculture ministers. As the report notes, "Officials and ministers followed an approach whose object was sedation" of the public over fears that beef was dangerous.
The cabinet was worried at the "implications for the meat industry" of measures like banning cattle offal from baby food. People have died, and more will die horrible deaths, as a direct result of "sedation" by those Tory ministers.
The Tories were relieved that the BSE report let them off the hook. The New Labour government accepted that and played down overt criticisms of the Tories last week. The reason is simple. New Labour is continuing with the same deregulation and cuddling up to the food industry that gave us BSE.
Profit came first
IN 1988 the government was forced to act, and banned the use of ground-up cattle remains (MBM) in cattle feed. But big business interests came first. "The government gave the animal feed trade a period of grace...to clear existing stocks," says the report. "Farmers in their turn used up the stock that they had purchased. This led to thousands of animals being infected."
For eight more years BSE continued, and people ate infected meat products.
- MBM made from cattle remains was banned from cattle feed, but the government allowed manufacturers to continue producing it for poultry and pig feed.
- Cattle, poultry and pig feed were produced in the same factories, and so "cross-contamination in feed mills resulted in the continued infection of thousands of cattle."
- Animals showing signs of BSE were slaughtered and banned from the food chain. Those in the same herd which could have been incubating the disease but had yet to show symptoms were allowed into food. In most other countries the whole herd was killed. When cattle offal was banned from the food chain in the early 1990s some exceptions were made.
- Mechanically recovered meat, which is a key ingredient in cheap meat products like pies, was allowed right through until 1995. It contains nerve tissue, which can carry BSE-infected matter.
- The abomasum, one of the cow's stomachs, was excluded from the ban. It is the source of tripe and rennet, used in cheese production.
- Slaughterhouses also ignored rules on removing BSE-infected material.
Critics are proved right
BURIED AWAY in the BSE report is a vindication of those scientists who condemned the meat industry and government, and warned that beef was dangerous. Scientists like Dr Richard Lacey and Dr Stephen Dealler were vilified by the government, and food industry for warning of the dangers of BSE. Government minutes record how officials were ordered to "launch an all-out attack at every opportunity" on Lacey and Dealler, who were described as "the enemy".
Malcolm Povey is a food scientist at Leeds University, where Lacey and Dealler used to work. He told us, "Marks & Spencer and Northern Foods wrote to the vice-chancellor of Leeds University telling him to curb Lacey, and threatening to withdraw all funding from the university if he did not do so. They kept their promise. Lacey's department was closed.
"It was apparent to food scientists that there were serious concerns about beef from 1988 onwards, but we were made to feel like pariahs." The Phillips report admits of Lacey and Dealler's criticisms that, "many have been vindicated". It lists 14 points on which Lacey and Dealler attacked the beef industry and government. On 13 the verdict is that the pair were correct.
Victim of the market
"I AM absolutely determined to reduce the burden of regulation on business. We also need to look at the new rules on meat hygiene which have caused alarm to business. Do we go too far...on such things?"
- Official note from prime minister JOHN MAJOR to then agriculture secretary JOHN GUMMER, 30 November 1992
Exporters of poison
ONE OF the most sickening revelations in the BSE report is that the British meat industry, with government backing, deliberately exported BSE-infected material to some of the world's poorest countries. When British MBM was banned in Britain and Europe, producers protected profits by driving up exports to countries outside Europe.
The biggest company was Prosper de Mulder. It admits that it "did export MBM to Europe and other countries mainly Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, after the emergence of BSE." Because British MBM was mixed with others "the end user would be unlikely to be aware that the product included ruminant [cattle] protein produced by UK renderers," says the report. No one yet knows the consequences in Asia or Africa.