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BSE: They say it’s all over-it isn’t

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Exclusive interview with Professor Richard Lacey
Issue 1734

BSE-‘mad cow disease’- has suddenly become a key issue right across Europe. In France, Italy, Greece, Spain and, above all, Germany, beef consumption has slumped by up to 40 percent in the wake of a sudden rise in BSE cases.

The European Union plans to slaughter some two million cattle. In Germany the government has been plunged into crisis over BSE-ministers have been forced to resign and there are now plans to cull some half a million cows.

In Britain, meanwhile, where there have been more reported BSE cases than the rest of the world put together, the government claims the disease is now slowly disappearing.

Yet over 80 people have died here from the human form of the disease, and no one knows how many more could yet die.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Leeds-based scientist Professor Richard Lacey warned of what was happening in Britain and called for urgent action. The then Tory government, top civil servants and the food industry waged a vicious campaign against Lacey, wanting nothing to jeopardise the profits of the beef barons.

They smeared his reputation, questioned his sanity and finally saw him pushed into early retirement. Yet when the official Phillips report into BSE came out last year, hidden away in an appendix was an astonishing section. It said that on all essential matters Lacey had been right.

There has been no apology, no media fanfare.

Instead government and media have accepted the soothing conclusions of the Phillips report-that the problem with BSE lay solely with contaminated cattle feed, and that thanks to government measures the disease was dying out.

In an exclusive interview Richard Lacey spoke to Socialist Worker about BSE and why he thinks there is still huge cause for concern.

We do not agree with all of Professor Lacey’s views, for example his contention that overpopulation is the cause of poverty and hunger on a world scale.

Nor are we in a position to judge whether Professor Lacey is right on the concerns he raises about BSE-that is a matter for proper scientific inquiry and debate.

We do know that Professor Lacey’s record means that he has the right to have his concerns properly investigated. Yet, once again, that is not happening.

In the Phillips report there is a section buried away that is a vindication of everything you said. How do you feel about that?

For me personally it’s a bit late, having effectively had to retire five years early in 1995. It would have been much better if we’d had a serious debate at the time.

Instead what you had was an attempt to blacken my character. If there had been open debate, action would have been taken and I am quite certain many lives would have been saved. But what happened was typical of the last government.

There is also a problem with the Phillips report. The report was happy to blame various politicians and a few scientists over what happened up to 1996. But people now believe the BSE problem was all due to the last government and has been sorted out. It hasn’t.

The other aspect which worries me about the Phillips inquiry is that it got some aspects wrong-blaming all of the BSE problem on the cattle feed problem, for example.

The sheep scrapie disease, which has similarities with BSE, has been maintained for two centuries and was never caused by centralised feed production. If the infection is maintained in this way, then it has to be passed by vertical transmission (from mother to offspring).

The only point on which I am not vindicated in the report is on vertical transmission.

Yet there is enormous evidence to support this. With any chronic infection in the mother’s body there is always a good risk of vertical transmission. For example, this is true with human diseases like syphilis, listeria or HIV. There is a mass of evidence on sheep scrapie that shows it is vertically transmitted.

The infective agent is also durable in the environment. In Iceland in the 1940s they endeavoured to get rid of sheep scrapie, slaughtered the entire flock and restocked from a scrapie-free source. The new flock went down with the disease a few years later-it must have stayed in the environment.

Vertical transmission adds to the reasons to do total herd slaughter whenever an infected animal is found instead of killing just the BSE-infected animal itself. You may also have to restock on new pasture because of the agent persisting in the environment.

But then the numbers and the cost involved are enormous. So if you can’t afford to do it, you set up fabrication and deception in order to claim you don’t need to do it.

You dispute official claims that BSE is declining in Britain and will disappear.

The worrying thing about the official predictions is that they are based on studies done at Oxford’s department of zoology.

The same department provided the chairman of the first committee of scientific advisers on BSE, Sir Richard Southwood, who got it wrong. The essential work predicting the spontaneous disappearance of BSE was based on the reduced number of identified cases.

But there are worrying aspects to those figures. Compensation payments to farmers were reduced, reducing the incentive to report.

Also from March 1996 farmers and vets knew old cows were not going into the human food chain, so there was no pressing moral reason to report cases. The number of cases in Ireland and some other European countries is increasing. This rise cannot be mainly attributed to meat and bone meal in cattle feed. The timescale is wrong.

It is also strange that the rest of Europe has agreed to random testing of slaughtered cows, but not Britain. This means we are not able to get an accurate assessment here. I would like some sort of honesty instead of saying it’s all going away.

What does the BSE affair suggest about the relationship between scientists and business?

My first academic post was in Bristol in 1966. We had adequate funding and I thought one of our main functions was to challenge and question industry. When I came to Leeds in 1983 after having worked in the health service, I was devastated at the change. Everyone was trying to get money out of industry. The integrity and morale had gone.

I saw people working minimal hours, only concerned with getting funding. We have had a lack of central funding and too many students. I don’t believe standards are holding up.

Business sponsorship has an enormous effect. The scientists know that if they criticise the sponsors then they are not going to get their grant renewed. We have to separate the control of scientists from industry. They have got to be seen as independent. Increasingly people are worried about this.

What about the wider issues of the supply and production of food?

The problem is that farming equals meat to too many people. Also we are paying the price of cheap food policy. The cost of food may have to go up. The alternative is to diversify. If we ate more vegetables and cereals, we could actually feed ourselves better.

People have got hooked on over-processed food. The food industry claims it only produces what people want to eat. That’s not true-they make their niche, create a market.

We have also got to do something about food wastage. I have never seen so much thrown away, waste, the packaging. We need more provision of local raw ingredients in food.

My overriding concern is that the world population is out of control. As we produce more, the population grows and the proportion of people malnourished grows too. We need to develop a strategy of reducing the population over time.

The New Labour government claims BSE is a problem of the past and now things are different on food safety with its Food Standards Agency.

It’s a deception. The head of the Food Standards Agency comes from the same university department as the first chair of the BSE scientific advisory committee who got it all wrong.

The fact that they aren’t testing for BSE shows they aren’t serious. The same civil servants who were manipulating the last government are still in place. No action has been taken.

On food safety they haven’t even taken action over butchers, who are still allowed to sell raw and cooked food on one premises. The result is that we are gong to get more epidemics of the E coli food poisoning.

The only significant changes on food safety in the last ten years are on dealing with salmonella in eggs, and on advice to pregnant women on avoiding certain foods because of listeria.

On everything else, despite the massive public interest, there has been no change in the basic philosophy of industry or government that will prevent these issues recurring.

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