BSE crisis – the madness of the profit system

THE BSE epidemic represents a deadlier threat to human health than HIV/Aids. Yet the people who are responsible for the deaths of over 80 people so far and who have put millions at risk – former Tory ministers and civil servants – are mildly rebuked by Lord Phillips’ 4,000-page inquiry report.

BSE crisis – the madness of the profit system

EIGHTY PEOPLE have died a horrible death. Thousands more are expected to succumb to the human form of “mad cow” disease.

One million BSE-infected cattle have been culled. Around £5 billion of public funds has been spent trying to clean up the mess. Yet 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.

Phillips report

THE LONG-awaited report of the BSE inquiry headed by Lord Phillips, Master of the Rolls, runs into 16-volumes and has cost £27 million.

When agriculture minister Nick Brown gave the report’s findings to MPs in the House of Commons the chamber was half empty.

John Major, who was prime minister during the BSE/vCJD disaster, charitably spread the blame around by saying “all of us must accept our responsibilities for shortcomings”.

Tim Yeo, the Tory agriculture spokesman, said sorry on behalf of the previous Tory government and apologised to the victims’ families. But these curt and belated apologies were given in the full knowledge that no criminal charges would be brought against them.

Frances Hall, mother of vCJD victim, Peter, who runs the Human BSE Foundation hotline, said: “He [Yeo] hasn’t apologised to me nor to anyone I know.”

In 1996, Yeo, a former minister in Major’s government, had dismissed the BSE threat to human health as an “hysterical over-reaction”. Only last year he said: “The public reaction is quite out of proportion to the risks.”

New Labour’s Nick Brown has, however, rallied to the Tories’ defence: “The [Major] government did not lie to the public about BSE. It believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote. The government was preoccupied with preventing an alarmist over-reaction to BSE because it believed the risk was remote.”


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”, “false reassurances”, “absurd exaggeration”, etc. Actions of ministers and civil servants are prefaced “with hindsight”. All of which amounts to saying that no-one is to blame, but instead treats the whole BSE saga a “national tragedy”.

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.

Ray Bradley who went on to head the BSE team wrote a memo to his chief saying: “If the disease turns out to be bovine scrapie it would have severe repercussions for the export trade and possibly also for humans… I recommend playing it low key”. Before an EU imposed ban on exports, the beef trade was valued at £590 million. Clearly, the profits of the industry came and still comes 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 1995-1997 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.” He got experts from SEAC (Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee) to back him. Sir John Patison chairman of SEAC, agreed to appear in a film advertisement for the Meat and Livestock Commission to promote beef as safe. It was pulled after being warned privately, that a case of new variant CJD had been found. The report commended Hogg’s “wise” decision to launch a public information film about BSE!

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, who in May 1990 in the full glare of TV cameras attempted to reassure the public that beef was safe (despite the accumulating evidence that BSE could jump the species barrier) by trying to feed a beefburger 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.

John MacGregor, Minister of Agriculture 1987-1992, was actually praised in the report for introducing a ban on specified bovine offal (SBO) in food in 1989. However, BSE infected offal was still being fed to pigs and poultry and then, through animal feed back to cows. Only in 1995 was this practise banned.

Keith Meldrum, the government chief veterinary officer from 1988 to 1997 made repeated assurances that “there is no evidence whatsoever of a risk to human health” from eating British beef. He retired in 1997 and has spent the last two-and-a-half years working with the inquiry.

Scientists gagged

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.

Scientists like Richard Lacey and Stephen Dealler early on tried to warn the public of the danger of BSE to human health but their opinions were steamrollered by the government’s Whitehall propaganda machine.

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.”

Dr Stephen Dealler, a medical microbiologist who gave evidence to the Phillips’ inquiry, said scientists like himself were “just not listened to”.

“What happened was a lot of research was prevented, a lot of publications were prevented and a lot of research took place inside the Ministry of Agriculture. It was very difficult for this data to get out to people outside.”

A socialist programme for the food industry

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.

Subsidised big business

EACH YEAR £30 billion is handed out in subsidies by the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). But 80% of this money goes to the richest 20% of European farmers.

A consequence of this huge tax subsidy to rich farming interests is that it makes the practice of widespread use of pesticides and herbicides highly profitable. Each year 11,000 tonnes of pesticides are sprayed on fields, polluting the soil, crops and water supplies and contributing to the decline of birds and animals.

Multinational biotechnology and agrichemical companies together with the big four supermarkets in Britain enjoy market domination and have enormous economic power. This enables them to set the government’s agenda on farming from GM foods through to food safety regulation.

Socialist programme

INTENSIVE FARMING has revolutionised food production but at a high price. 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.

New agricultural research, scientific techniques, land management and food processing, ie each stage of food production from farm to fork, must be based on what is environmentally sustainable, safe and wholesome.

A plan of sustainable food production drawn up between representatives of the farmworkers’ unions, consumers and small farmers who actually work the land.

Agribusiness, including the pharmaceutical companies, must be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management.

Land should be leased out on a secure basis to those prepared to work it including groups of farm workers, existing tenants and small farmers.

The food processing industry and retail industry should also 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.