By Judy Beishon
The recognition by the British government's own advisory committee of a possible link between BSE ("mad cow disease") and the fatal CJD in humans threw the government into panic and turmoil.
For the nine years that BSE was spreading through Britain's herds, the Tories declared beef completely safe; then they suddenly announced that there is an "extremely small" risk from eating beef.
The chairman of the BSE committee, John Pattison, spoke of a possible epidemic on the scale of AIDS: "It could be tens of thousands, and cumulatively it could be hundreds of thousands".
Within a few days the entire £4 billion British beef industry was facing devastation. More than 8000 workers have been laid off, with more of the industry's 600,000 employees likely to follow. More than £l billion was knocked off the value of shares in food, supermarket and animal feed firms.
BSE was first officially recognised in 1986, yet since then the government has not given adequate funding to research its causes and consequences. As a result, there is still no scientific proof of either the cause of BSE or the link between BSE and CJD.
Huge cuts in scientific research have been made since the Tories came to power in 1979. Despite increasing public worry about beef's safety, the national unit for research into CJD was forced to plan major staff cuts. An internationally renowned BSE researcher who worked at the public health laboratory in Newcastle, Harash Narang, was made redundant two years ago.
The government advisory committee on BSE thinks the most likely cause of BSE was the feeding of scrapie-infected sheep carcasses to cattle, mainly in the 1970s and '80s. Animal feed manufacturers, seeking bigger profits, were making potentially dangerous changes in the extraction of meat remnants from carcasses.
There were clear warnings from scientists that the changes increased the risk of transmitting diseases to other animals and even humans. Yet Tory ministers threw out draft regulations from the previous Labour government designed to place safety restrictions on the extraction process, and later allowed feed manufacturers to use lower temperatures during extraction.
What action did the government take once BSE was confirmed in 1986? It took it 18 months to make BSE a notifiable disease and to stop cattle and sheep remains from being fed to other ruminants, and 20 months to introduce a compulsory slaughter and compensation scheme. A ban on using certain offal in human foods was not introduced until three years later, in 1989.
Despite now claiming that beef has been safe since 1989, the government was still making additions to the rules on offal as late as 1995. Against the advice of its own BSE advisory committee, the government offered farmers compensation of only 50% of the value of slaughtered animals. This led to farmers rushing to sell any BSE-infected cows into the food market before the disease became obvious. Full compensation was eventually granted in 1990, but it was reduced again in 1994.
There has been widespread abuse of the anti-BSE regulations that do exist. Two-fifths of British slaughterhouses do not comply with European Union hygiene rules, and yet not one has been closed. In September 1995 the Veterinary Service reported "failings" in the handling of offal in almost half of the slaughterhouses inspected.
John Major claimed that the carcass of every slaughtered animal is inspected by the Meat Hygiene Service. But a meat hygiene worker said that he had only 17 seconds on average to inspect each carcass, and that the service is suffering a redundancy program. Many press reports reveal that farmers have sold cattle with false certificates claiming that they are from BSE-free herds. Tory MP Edwina Currie complained that stockpiled BSE-contaminated cattle feed was being used after it was banned.
With the lack of concrete evidence, it is possible that cattle feed is not responsible for BSE. An organic farmer, Mark Purdey, puts forward a credible argument that BSE was caused by a very strong dose of organo-phosphorus pesticide which was used on most cattle 10 years ago by order of the Thatcher government.
The Tory cabinet began by saying that no special measures were necessary, and then in the face of a 90% fall in the demand for beef, and massive opposition from British farmers and EU agriculture ministers, were forced within days to do a U-turn and advocate a slaughter policy.
Major blamed what he considered an unnecessary slaughter on "market hysteria". Their worship of market forces diminishes when the market turns against their friends in the farming industry.
The Tories' personal connections with farming are very close: almost 40 Tory MPs have direct farming interests. Some argued for no action, and others for just a symbolic slaughter.
The Tories hold most of the farming-based constituencies. Wealthy farmers and landowners often contribute to Tory funds and make up the membership of local Conservative Party Associations. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has a long record of support for the chiefs of the farming industry.
Edwina Currie said recently that at the time of the salmonella in eggs crisis when she was a junior minister, MAFF officials "were not the least interested in public health and felt their task was to look after the farming industry. They did a better job than the National Union of Farmers"!
The Tories were united in shock and fury at the ban on British beef by EU agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler. Britain's beef export trade is worth £600 million per year.
The crisis has forced the Tories into the humiliating position of begging for the lifting of the ban and for financial compensation.
The German agricultural minister was heard complaining about the Tories' double standards when he said that Britain had urged Europe to pay as "little as possible" to Germany when it suffered an outbreak of swine fever in 1994.
Two-thirds of the compensation received by Britain will have to be repaid to the EU next year in the form of automatic deductions from Britain's rebates (a rule instituted at Margaret Thatcher's insistence). But for the time being part of the financial burden for the government has been deferred until after the next general election.
The agreed slaughter of all cattle over 30 months old will cost up to £3 billion in compensation. In addition, the government has offered £53 million to slaughterhouses and £112 million a year compensation to the firms that strip carcasses. It looks likely that the EU, and maybe farmers in Britain, will force it to go a lot further on the number of animals to be slaughtered.
Killing every herd affected by BSE would cost £7 billion. The worst scenario is having to slaughter all 11.7 million cattle at a cost of at least £20 billion. This would have a big effect on the public sector borrowing requirement and the trade deficit, both of which have already been affected to some extent. It would destroy hopes of pre-election tax cuts, and lead the government to try to pass on the cost to the poorest sections of society in the form of more benefit cuts and attacks on public sector pay and conditions.
The crisis has done enormous damage to the Tory government. The scandal has hit every household in the country and has caused massive anger. It has brought out into the open many other horrors, such as the fact that the ingredients labels on foods do not actually tell you what is in the food; a pork sausage can contain beef without it being mentioned. Many methods used in intensive farming are now increasingly being questioned, like the use of hormones and antibiotics to accelerate growth.
Monopolisation and intensification in farming have forced out many smaller farms, leaving the largest to make super-profits, enriching the big landowners. Farmers' income has risen by 170% since 1991 while the low wages they pay their workers have increased by only 3%.
The scandal also exposes the consequences of deregulation. At the moment MAFF is planning further deregulation of the handling, freezing, chilling and recovering of meat. Last November, Tory MP Jaques Arnold told Michael Heseltine that businesses felt "considerable irritation" about "the regulations that pour out in respect of food hygiene and safety". Heseltine replied that "all those regulations are the subject of review".
In January the government allowed food and catering businesses to store food at eight degrees rather than five degrees. It estimated that this would save companies £41 million a year.
As long as agriculture is for profit rather than to provide people with healthy food, we can never be confident of the safety of food. Only a publicly owned food and farming industry, within which all new methods are thoroughly researched and democratically decided, can give us food which carries no risk to our health.
[Abridged from the British magazine Socialism Today.]