Socialist Worker

Business behind the BSE scandal

Issue No. 1720

A tale of lies, cover up, and more lies

Business behind the BSE scandal

THE INQUIRY into the BSE "mad cow disease" has revealed how business interests and profit led to disaster. Already at least 75 people have died in Britain from the human form of BSE, dubbed new variant CJD.

No one knows how many more may die. The most recent study, by Oxford scientists, suggests 136,000 people could die in the years ahead. The inquiry has exposed how through the 1980s and 1990s Tory ministers presided over a disaster created by their pro-business, market policies. For years the Tories and the beef barons who dominate the industry refused to act at all.

Some controls on cattle were eventually imposed. But the Tory government, the farming lobby and the meat industry all still insisted that "British beef is safe".

Only in 1996, ten years after BSE was first recognised, did they admit the truth-that BSE-infected meat could cause disease in humans. New Labour launched the BSE inquiry which has exposed this scandal. But throughout the crisis New Labour spokespeople went along with the "beef is safe" mantra.

And in office New Labour has continued with the same profit-driven pro-business logic which caused the BSE disaster.

Services to industry

NOTHING illustrates the way the market and business fuelled the BSE disaster more than the tale of Dr Richard Kimberlain. Kimberlain began his career as a government scientist. But in 1988, as the BSE crisis hit the front pages, he quit to set up a private scientific consultancy, SARDAS.

In 1990 Kimberlain was invited to join SEAC, the government's official scientific advisory body on BSE. SEAC was supposed to dispense objective and independent advice to ministers. In 1994 the commercial interests of SEAC members were revealed to parliament. By then Kimberlain was a paid consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, the pet food industry and to the beef industry's Meat and Livestock Commission. Kimberlain certainly earned his consultancy fees.

He warned Pedigree Masterfoods that they should exclude certain cattle products from pet food. Only six months later did the government ban these same materials from the human food chain. Yet Kimberlain was supposed to be advising the government. In 1995 the Meat and Livestock Commission asked its paid consultant Dr Kimberlain to attend a meeting involving the meat industry and the supermarkets. Colin McLean, a senior commission official, told Kimberlain that he had "drafted the sort of answers they [the meat industry] would like to see" about the links between BSE and CJD.

Dr Kimberlain then drafted a SEAC statement which was remarkably similar to that suggested by the Meat and Livestock Commission. It said that the CJD crisis had no connection with BSE, and that British beef remained safe. Only a few weeks later, in March 1996, health secretary Stephen Dorrell was finally forced to admit the exact opposite-that there was a link between BSE and CJD.

The guilty

"THERE IS no evidence of BSE passing from animals to humans."

  • Tory agriculture minister John Gummer, who fed a hamburger to his daughter in 1990

"BSE is not transmissible to humans."

  • Tory agriculture minister DOUGLAS HOGG, December 1995. Just three months later the Tories finally admitted a link between BSE and CJD

Vaccine risk

THE WAY the pharmaceutical industry is prepared to put lives at risk was revealed last week. Stock of an important type of polio vaccine had to be withdrawn around the country after it was discovered that the Medeva pharmaceutical firm had been using possibly BSE-infected cattle material to produce the vaccine. This contradicted assurances it had given to the NHS. The government's chief medical officer wrote to doctors this week saying that "in the case of Medeva the assurances have proved inaccurate".

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 28 Oct 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1720
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.