BSE crisis – the madness of the profit system

Twenty years ago…

BSE crisis – the madness of the profit system

The UK’s biggest health scandal in living memory was the BSE epidemic known as “mad cow” disease. On 20 March 1996 Tory health secretary Stephen Dorrell belatedly announced a “probable link” between the cattle disease BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and its human equivalent, vCJD.

More than 180,000 cattle were infected and 4.4 million slaughtered during the eradication programme which cost billions. By June 2014 it had officially killed 177 people.

Four years after Dorrell’s announcement, Lord Phillips produced a 4,000-page inquiry report costing £27 million. But as the Socialist remarked at the time: “Not one former government minister, civil servant, nor anyone in the meat and livestock industry, faces criminal charges. Under capitalism, the rich and powerful don’t pay for their crimes.”

The following article commenting on the report was published in the Socialist on 3 November 2000 and can be read online in full.

No one in the report is accused of lying and covering up the BSE scandal. Instead, its language is full of words such as “misled”, “inaccurate”, “mistakes”, “regrettable”, etc. Actions of ministers and civil servants are prefaced “with hindsight”.

The report is a whitewash of the previous Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, top civil servants and meat industry chiefs.

The inquiry findings only attack “the culture of secrecy and complacency” in government. But this criticism merely begs the question – what lies behind this culture?

A clue is given in the report. In 1986, scientists at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), who identified BSE and its potential threat to health imposed secrecy on their findings.

Before an EU-imposed ban on exports [in 1996], the beef trade was valued at £590 million. Clearly, the profits of the industry came and still come before people’s health.

But this should come as no surprise. MAFF – which is meant to represent both producers’ and consumers’ interests – is simply a pliant tool of farming interests. As Dr Tim Lang of the London Food Commission put it: “You’d be wrong to think of MAFF as a cosy club for farmers. It is a cosy club for farmers, the agrochemical and food industry.”

With the Tory Party and New Labour dependent on big business financing and with big business representatives operating at the highest levels of government, there is no way the political system, without being challenged by working class people, can address the needs and concerns of the majority of the population.


Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister between 1995 and 1997, was determined to rehabilitate beef sales in the interests of the industry. In December 1995 he said: “BSE is not transmissible to humans” and that “in any case our controls are effective enough to prevent the infective agent getting into the human food chain.”

After the medical journal, the Lancet, reported the death of a dairy farmer of CJD in March 1993, Kenneth Calman, the government’s then chief medical officer, stated: “I wish to emphasise that there is no scientific evidence of a causal link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans.”

John Gummer, Secretary of State for Agriculture 1989-1993, in May 1990 in the full glare of TV cameras, attempted to reassure the public that beef was safe by trying to feed a beef burger to his four-year-old daughter, Cordelia.

In the same year Gummer said: “Our Beef is safe… There is no evidence anywhere in the world of BSE passing from animals to humans.” The report says he shouldn’t be criticised.

In the attempts by civil servants and government ministers to lie and cover up the serious implications for human health of the BSE crisis, dissenting scientists were maligned, sidelined, and even threatened with legal action to silence them.

As microbiology professor Richard Lacey pointed out in 1996: “The [Tory] government has been deliberately risking the health of the population for a decade. The reason it didn’t take action was that it would be expensive and damaging politically, particularly to the farming community who are their supporters.”

Socialist programme

The history of the BSE epidemic shows that unsafe practices in the meat industry were the consequences of a profit-driven system, ie, the capitalist market economy – a clear example of how big business works against the interests of the majority.

The practise of recycling animals to ruminants [vegetarian eaters] was introduced in the late 1920s and accelerated after World War Two with the adoption of intensive farming techniques.

In an industry now dominated by finance capital, the motivation is not to feed people with safe, wholesome food, using sustainable methods of production, but maximising profits and minimising costs.

People cannot have confidence in an industry whose safety record comes second to big business’ profits.

To restore confidence, the contradiction between the drive for profits under capitalism and the health and safety of people has to be eliminated. The pursuit of profit has to be jettisoned and replaced with a democratic, socialist agriculture policy.

The food processing industry and retail industry should be brought under democratic workers’ control and management to ensure standards and make sure it operates within an overall plan to supply good quality cheap food to everyone.