Uncowed bearer of bad news

April 19, 1996

Lucy Hodges talks to Richard Lacey, the blunt scientist who told the Government what it did not want to hear about BSE

Richard Lacey is wearing a loud red tie depicting cows' heads. He enjoys the joke. There aren't many laughs in mad cow disease, he points out. One must savour all the fun one can wring out of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.

Cows are animals Professor Lacey cannot escape in the Yorkshire countryside outside Leeds where he lives with his wife and two daughters, none of whom have eaten beef since 1989. He is surrounded by the damn things, and has even built a ha-ha to prevent the animals stumbling on to his lawn in search of BSE-free organic matter. He was not, however, able to prevent local farmers daubing "BSE" in blue paint on his walls, though he has managed to remove most of the graffiti now.

As the microbiologist, visiting professor at Leeds University and NHS consultant, who warned the public six years ago about the risk posed by BSE to humans, Lacey is deriving a certain satisfaction from the recent turn of events. Back in 1990 he had been rubbished publicly for his pains by Sir Jerry Wiggin, chairman of the House of Commons select committee on agriculture, who accused the professor of "losing touch completely with the real world" when Lacey claimed that a generation of people could be wiped out if his worst fears were realised. "They ignored everything I said, everything I wrote," Professor Lacey says of the select committee. "They just tried to be offensive and to catch me out."

Ever since - until his concerns were shown to have been well founded - Lacey had been dismissed as a bit of a nutter by farmers, livestock people and supermarkets. He was not too upset about it, he says, because he had experienced a fair bit of nastiness over the years. "I also felt slightly detached," he remembers. "I felt I was doing a job. I didn't take it that personally." But the professor talks with feeling about orchestrated malice from the authorities.

Today Lacey is not exactly crowing, though he does observe that the recent research into ten deaths by the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh was in line with his predictions. "In 1990-91 I predicted the first human cases would be in 1996. This is just about exactly on course. It is new. And it is deeply alarming."

The professor does not talk like other scientists, which is perhaps why he has got into so much trouble. He is bold, mischievous and calls a spade a spade. He is also excessively open. One gets the feeling he is compulsively honest, not cautious like other scientists. When he sees something that worries him, he says so in words of one syllable.

Lacey's demeanour adds to the "mad professor" effect. The red face, bulbous eyes, white hair and slurred speech are not what might be called telegenic. But that does not stop him going on TV and talking to the press. In fact much of his time is spent answering the telephone as journalists call him from all over the world to get the lowdown on BSE in cows and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans. His detractors complain that he seeks out publicity and delights in the limelight. Well, they would wouldn't they, he says. "If they don't like what you say, they make personal attacks."

The critics complain that he has not done any research of his own into BSE, which Lacey agrees with. He has not done experimental research because he does not fancy injecting and killing animals. (He has two bouncy mongrels about whom he is very soppy.) The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has a total monopoly on BSE-infected carcasses in any case.

Aged 55, the Cambridge-educated professor has been stirring things up on food safety since 1986. His first concern was listeria. Then he moved to salmonella. While researching his Penguin book on food he began to worry about BSE. At first he accepted the Government's line that there was no cause for concern, but the facts did not hang together. Government scientists said BSE was derived from scrapie in sheep, but there was no reason to think that was the case, and there certainly is not any longer.

The professor thinks he triggered the first crisis on BSE when he was quoted in The Sunday Times as recommending people under 50 not to eat British beef. He added that the whole country should be put in quarantine and that all exports of beef should be halted. Finally he suggested six million cattle be slaughtered. That particular crisis was resolved after John Gummer, then agriculture minister, fed a burger to his four-year-old daughter.

"The Government got very cross with me," says Lacey. Conservative MPs put down an early day motion in the House of Commons asking that the chief medical officer investigate the professor's sanity. "I was upset at the time," says Lacey. But he has recovered now.

In 1994 he produced Mad Cow Disease: the History of BSE in Britain, a lively scamper through the evidence and his abrasive relationship with MAFF, which will be reissued shortly. It looked at the nature of BSE as well as the epidemiology, its distribution and occurrence. It concluded that BSE could be passed from cows to humans and that the disease was probably endemic in the UK. His first book, Safe Shopping, Safe Cooking, Safe Eating sold 40,000 copies. That was followed by Unfit for Human Consumption, which examined salmonella, listeria, food irradiation and BSE, and A Brief History of Food, which exposed the evils of modern farming methods.

Many scientists, veterinarians and others resent Lacey's message of gloom, his perpetual stance of opposition to the Government. Does he have a party political axe to grind? No, says the professor. He has no party politics. Anyway, does it look as if he is a left-wing loony? he asks, waving his arms around the sumptuous conservatory in the direction of the four acres surrounding his Victorian country home.

But what proof is there that BSE is passed to humans? Lacey says he is convinced about the link between BSE infected meat and CJD. And it annoys him that so many vets and professors of animal health have been pontificating on the subject when the experts on what happens to humans are human doctors. "They don't understand the human illness side," he says of the vets. And it is wrong to use the word proof. In medical diseases you don't get proof, he says. "You can't prove that smoking causes lung cancer in an individual or in ten individuals," he says. "What you're talking about is epidemiological association." Anyway in the past two weeks of intense debate no one has suggested an alternative source for the disease.

How come he is stirring up so much anxiety when there have been so few deaths from CJD in humans? "You wait and see," he replies ominously. The incubation period means the disease has not manifested itself much yet. But we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of cases.

Why has the Government been so slow to do anything about the disease, when there was a risk, however remote, to human health? Cost? suggests the professor. "Perhaps they hoped it would not surface until they were out of power." That is a very cynical thing to say, he acknowledges, but it is a possibility. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee is still giving advice that Lacey finds quite extraordinary, namely that the manufacturing process for gelatine destroys the potency of BSE, when it does not, according to the professor. It also drives him mad that the Government is talking about culling herds as some kind of PR exercise to restore confidence in beef, as if there isn't any problem. We need measures to get rid of the problem, he says. "They haven't done anything yet."

Does he enjoy all this aggravation, one wonders. No, he says. It gets in the way of work. In particular, he does not enjoy appearing on television. He has tried to avoid doing too many TV debates because he gets blamed for the cause of the crisis. The day of our interview he had received three letters from angry farmers accusing him of being responsible for BSE. "I don't enjoy the hassle," he says. But if he does not say what he thinks, he is asked why he is not prepared to defend his position. "You cannot extract yourself unless you have other people to take your place, and that is just beginning to be the case."

It turns out what Lacey really wants to talk about is the flowers in his conservatory, his magnificent tropical passifloras and daturas. The daturas have nasty red spider mites and Lacey has figured out how to get rid of them organically. He will be publishing that research in a gardening magazine soon. Friends of red spider mites had better watch out.

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