'Too secret...too late'

May 8, 1998

The BSE inquiry last week renewed its efforts to uncover the anatomy of the country's worst ever food-safety crisis. Its chairman, Appeal Court judge Sir Nicholas Phillips, insists his "primary objective is not to find fault". But the evidence from independent scientists during the first phase of hearings has ensured that civil servants, who begin giving evidence in June, will have a rough ride.

Their critics come from the heart of the scientific establishment. Foremost is Sir Richard Southwood, professor of zoology at Oxford and chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board. He was the man first called in a decade ago to advise ministers what to do as the epidemic of mad cow disease in cattle spiralled out of control. Now he is back to tell what went wrong. His story is a catalogue of encounters with the arrogance and complacency of Whitehall.

Asked in secrecy in 1988 to chair a working group on the crisis, he entered a turf war between the health and agriculture departments. He told the inquiry he was invited to take charge by chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson who feared "potentially a very serious problem", but encountered scientists and civil servants at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with a "marked tendency to be optimistic".

Two MAFF names kept recurring in Southwood's evidence: those of the permanent secretary, Sir Derek Andrews, and the head of epidemiology at the Central Veterinary Laboratory, John Wilesmith. Southwood recalled how, at the outset, Andrews "expressed the hope to me that any recommendations we would make would not lead to an increase in public expenditure". And he recollected how Wilesmith told Southwood's working party that when a cow showed signs of the disease "the head is taken off with a chainsaw" before it enters the human food chain. "It is fair to say we were horrified," Southwood told the inquiry. (He soon ensured, or thought he had, that all such animals were disposed of in their entirety.) Wilesmith attended many of Southwood's working group meetings. At one, he criticised Southwood's calculation of the likely growth of the disease in cattle as "much too high". He said the epidemic had peaked and would soon start to decline. Southwood told the inquiry that "Mr Wilesmith was the epidemiologist and we therefore took (his) lower estimate". That proved a bad mistake. Wilesmith's calculation that there would be no more than 17,000-20,000 cases was rapidly overtaken as confirmed cases soared to ten times that number today.

David Tyrrell, first head of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, asked by government to report in 1989 on research priorities to counter the disease, said Whitehall's response to his recommendations felt like "a plot from Yes Minister" and left a "bad taste". His report was delayed for seven months until funds were allocated.

Meanwhile, Roy Anderson, a top epidemiologist, was on the outside, having his offers of expertise rebuffed. In his evidence to the inquiry he accused Wilesmith and his statistical colleagues at the CVL of a secretive and "amateur" approach to their work, which led directly to a six-year delay in tackling the crisis.

Anderson was then, as now, professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford's Wellcome Trust centre, Europe's largest centre of expertise in analysing the spread of infectious diseases. He said that several times between 1989 and 1991, the CVL refused his team access to its database on the spread of BSE among cattle. "I felt the predictions about the future were too optimistic," he told the inquiry. "I also felt the scientific methods employed to make predictions were limited in relation to those widely used in medical epidemiological research."

Anderson said that if he had been able to analyse the data it would have revealed that the ban on giving meat and bonemeal feed to cattle, the lynchpin of the government's effort to stem the disease, "was not fully effective" and shown that "new infections via this route continued through the early 1990s". Instead, on advice from the CVL, ministers continued to uphold the effectiveness of the ban until 1996.

Only after an intervention by a minister in mid-1996 did Anderson get permission from Wilesmith to analyse the data. In weeks he demonstrated that the ban had been widely flouted and that assurances that the disease was under control were demonstrably false. The database by then had records of over a million infected cattle, and Anderson estimates that 250,000 of those infections had arisen as a result of delay in releasing the data.

Further analysis by Anderson's colleagues the following year found "clear evidence" the disease was being transmitted from mothers to their calves, a topic that had been under investigation by the CVL since 1990. "At present," he told the inquiry, "maternal transmission occurs at a rate of roughly 5-10 per cent". The CVL, Anderson said, "has very few trained epidemiologists" and suffered from "a somewhat amateur air". He believed "problems in gaining access to data seem to have stemmed from CVL not Whitehall". But in seeking advice on policy formulation, Whitehall was equally to blame. "Civil servants in MAFF seemed very reluctant to seek our help or advice in the design of culling policies to further speed the decay of the epidemic, or the conduct of risk analysis in the context of human health."

Not much changed with the advent of a Labour government. Through 1997, Anderson told the inquiry, "it has continued to be a struggle to get access to certain parts of the BSE database held at the CVL". Information has been refused "despite pleas by the chairman of the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (UCL professor John Pattison) and its chief scientist". MAFF, he says, still regards data on the size and location of herds and their makeup as confidential.

Other scientists have felt bruised by their encounters with MAFF over BSE. It emerged that during June 1992, Conservative agriculture minister John Gummer accepted advice from a group of scientists chaired by Eric Lamming that he should set up a permanent advisory committee on animal feedstuffs. Its purpose was to police the ban on feeding cattle with bonemeal and meat from sheep, which Lamming, emeritus professor of animal physiology at the University of Nottingham, believed was not preventing cattle from eating feed infected with scrapie. But Lamming told the inquiry that ministers "backtracked" on the recommendation after a Cabinet reshuffle replaced Gummer with Gillian Shephard.

The inquiry has obtained a letter from Nicholas Soames, junior agriculture minister under Shephard, to a colleague in the health ministry commenting:

"The main thing that worries me is that if we set up the proposed committee it is almost bound to recommend tightening regulations or other forms of controls." This was felt to be contrary to government policy on deregulation.

From outside the scientific establishment, other angry voices have been heard at the inquiry. Richard Lacey, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Leeds, too spoke of a cover-up. He claimed government figures showing a rapid decline in cases in cattle could be false. Farmers, he said, were secretly burying infected animals to keep herds officially BSE-free. And he pointed out that the rate of reporting of infection appeared to fluctuate more in line with the level of compensation than with any likely reality. He took issue with Anderson and Southwood, both of whom expect BSE to be eliminated from British cattle by early in the next decade, and argued it would become endemic.

Lacey says many in the establishment have tried to characterise him as a crank. He is not alone in feeling targeted. Tim Holt, then a newly qualified doctor, wrote in the British Medical Journal in 1988 warning of the threat to humans. It was the first such paper in the medical literature. For his pains, other scientists and the food industry ridiculed him.

Others outside MAFF's orbit felt similarly sidelined. The first recognised case of BSE in cattle apparently occurred in 1984, not in 1985 as previously supposed when David Bee, a Hampshire vet, identified a "really spooky" new cattle disease on a local farm. After ten deaths, samples were sent to the CVL, where duty pathologist Carol Richardson reported the sponge-like state of a cow's brain - symptoms she had seen in sheep with scrapie. After returning from maternity leave, she was surprised to discover her superiors had published a paper on the "first" case, on a Kent farm, without mentioning the earlier Hampshire cases.

This picture painted by independent scientists of life in MAFF will take some explaining when civil servants come to the witness stand in June. For now, the best conclusion comes from Holt, the junior doctor who a decade ago found his contribution to scientific debate pilloried by his supposed betters. He concluded the crisis ran out of control because it fell between academic stools: between "a food industry with vested interests, a medical profession with little veterinary knowledge, a veterinary profession with no knowledge of human prion disease and a government eager to avoid another food scare."

Donald Acheson: The government's chief medical officer feared 'potentially a very serious problem'

Richard Lacey: Farmers, he said, have been secretly burying infected animals to keep herds officially BSE-free

Eric Lamming: Ministers 'back-tracked' on his recommendations on policing the ban on feeding cattle bonemeal and meat from sheep

Roy Anderson: 'Civil servants in MAFF seemed very reluctant to seek our help or advice in the design of culling policies or the conduct of risk analysis'

Richard Southwood: Encountered officials at MAFF with a 'marked tendency to be optimistic'. MAFFwas too anxious to keep research in-house

David Tyrrell: Whitehall's response to his recommendations felt like a 'plot from Yes Minister' and left a 'bad taste'

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.