Southwood defends scientists

May 8, 1998

'Too secret...too late'

It cannot be denied that things are worse than they should have been because regulations were not enforced. If the ban on giving cattle meat and bonemeal feed had been rigorously applied the disease would have disappeared from the British herd before the first human case appeared. But this was not the responsibility of scientists.

The knowledge base was small. More research was needed - and some key experiments have still not been carried out satisfactorily. This lack of scientific knowledge about BSE, which still exists today, means scientists have had to speak about likelihoods with caveats. This has resulted in scientific uncertainty, permitting a flexible administrative response and over-simplified reporting.

Independent scientific advice to ministers and the follow-through of scientists' recommendations, especially in relation to research, can become distorted by "departmental policy objectives". Perhaps in future the chief scientist should have to audit follow-up.

Response to risk is always relative. Public policy balances the risk to which the population is exposed against national gain.

The beef industry was important to Britain and from the beginning civil servants in MAFF were conscious of how easily it could be lost. Events in 1996 confirmed their fears. How culpable would they have been had their actions in the 1980s led to today's collapse in beef sales - and then it had turned out that BSE was just an exotic scrapie, harmless to humans? With hindsight, of course, we know it is not.

Having just seen the confidential notes of my meetings with ministers I am glad to note the extent I warned about the real risks. Even then one felt too gentle a line was being taken with the renderers: initially the ban on animal remains being included in cattle food was for only six months and the committee had to press to make this ban indefinite. In my judgement MAFF was too optimistic and too inclined to take a "soft" line with industry. This led to too much secrecy, too late a start, too much anxiety to keep research in-house and over-optimistic interpretation of scientific advice.

One may never be certain whether a single human death is due to the failure to apply the regulations rigorously after 1989. What one can be sure of is that this would never have happened but for "the unnatural practice of feeding animal remains to ruminants". This is all part of the intensification drive in farming, for higher productivity and cheaper food. This is the real lesson.

Sir Richard Southwood was chairman of the first independent BSE working party established in June 1988.

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