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Christopher Booker/Daily Mail 21 February

Why Should We Ever Trust Them Again?

The so-called ‘deadly H5N1 strain’ of avian flu continues its relentless westward march across Europe. Dead, infected birds are found as near as France. Poultry sales in Italy and Greece have plummeted. EU agriculture ministers meet in emergency session in Brussels.

A senior UN official says it is possible that bird flu has already reached Britain, without yet being detected. Poultry farmers fear their industry could be facing catastrophe.

And right in the front line of planning Britain’s response to this latest animal health crisis are the ministers, officials and scientists of Defra, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (formerly known as Maff, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food).

As the bird flu threat comes ever closer, and other governments across Europe step up their response into emergency mode, how much confidence can we have that our own ‘experts’ from Defra are equipped to handle it?

The answer from the bitter experience of past animal health crises – from salmonella and BSE to the great foot and mouth disaster of 2001 – does not exactly inspire confidence.

Already, with Dr.John Reid telling us not to panic (how on earth is this the responsibility of a defence minister?), while Defra muses on all kinds of draconian regulatory responses sometime in the future, we have seen a pattern of response only too familiar from the past.

It was back in the late 1980s that we first saw how our government machine performs when facing the kind of health scare which inspires headlines for weeks on end.

In 1988 there was growing alarm over soaring cases of salmonella food poisoning. This came to its head when a junior health minister Edwina Currie notoriously blurted out that, sadly, most egg production in Britain was infected with salmonella.

Initially, the ministers and officials of Maff, the ministry then representing farmers and the food industry, tried in vain to allay the resulting panic by downplaying the problem. But, as egg sales collapsed, led by the ministry’s then- chief vet Keith Meldrum, Maff launched a ferocious blitz on egg-laying poultry flocks, ordering that, wherever salmonella was identified, birds should be gassed and buried.

Three and a half million birds were slaughtered. 5000 small egg producers went out of business. Only when the dust had settled, did it turn out that it had been wrong to blame the rise in salmonella poisoning on eggs. Mrs Currie had confused salmonella in egg-laying birds with that in broiler chickens (in which the salmonella was killed by cooking anyway).

The ‘salmonella in eggs scare’ turned out to be exactly that – a scare, based on looking in the wrong place for the cause of a comparatively minor health problem.

Yet enormous damage had been done to the industry, and obviously to all those millions of birds unnecessarily slaughtered – simply because the government had been totally ill-equipped to handle the problem with the kind of scientific judgement and measured common sense that was needed.

Next came the BSE epidemic and again the pattern was repeated. For eight years, as the mysterious ‘mad cow disease’ spread through Britain’s dairy herds, the ministers and officials of Maff did all they could to deny there was any risk to human health (remember the farming minister John Gummer ostentatiously feeding a beefburger to his young daughter?).

Then in 1996 the government suddenly panicked and went to the opposite extreme, when health minister Stephen Dorrell told the House of Commons that there might be a danger after all, and that BSE could possibly be linked to the mysterious and horrible new disease known as ‘variant CJD’.

Again the result was hysteria. Beef sales plummeted, All exports were banned by the EU. And even the government’s top scientific expert on BSE was happy to predict that, by 2005, BSE could well have been responsible for killing half a million people.

As a political gesture (not even the scientists had called for it), ministers ordered that cattle over 30-months old must be removed from the food chain. Taxpayers spent more than £3 billion paying for millions of old cows to be burned.

Only years later, when only a handful of vCJD cases had been recorded and numbers had fallen almost to zero, did it emerge that the panic had been blown grotesquely out of proportion, and that probably there had been no link between CJD and beef-eating in the first place.

The next great crisis (although posing no threat to human health) was foot and mouth in 2001. As the virus spread rapidly down the country,the world’s top foot and mouth experts all said at once that the epidemic should be controlled by emergency vaccination (as was being successfully done when an epidemic broke out in Uruguay at exactly the same time).

Dogmatically opposed to vaccination (just as it now is again with bird flu) Maff contemptuously brushed aside this expert advice. Instead, as with salmonella, the ministry’s panic response was to order the mindless slaughter of millions of animals.

Most of those massacred in Maff’s so-called ‘pre-emptive cull’, in a bid to halt the spread of a disease which eventually ran its natural course, were entirely healthy. Killing them was in fact against the law.

The devastating incompetence with which Maff handled this epidemic was estimated to have cost the UK economy £8 billion. Hundreds of rural businesses went to the wall. For all those farmers and country people directly affected, it was a nightmare they will never forget.

So lamentable had Maff’s performance been that, in the wake of this this tragedy, its responsibilities were transferred to a new ministry, Defra - but with almost all the same people in charge.

Five years on, as we now face the threat of bird flu, there is little or no sign that they have learned any of the proper lessons from their previous disasters. Indeed one little incident last autumn might make us fear the worst.

Do you remember when the first case of avian flu imported into Britain was identified in a dodgy-seeming quarantine unit in Essex? To begin with, Defra didn’t even seem to know whether the infected birds were South American parrots or finches from Taiwan.

More alarming still was their response when a group of MPs was invited in for a technical briefing by all Defra’s official top brass, including the new chief vet Debby Reynolds, along with the professor who is the ministry’s chief scientific adviser and even the permanent secretary, its top civil servant.

When it comes to measuring the risk posed by bird flu, there is only one question which matters. Although people talk casually of the ‘deadly H5N1 strain’ of the virus, this has many sub-types – and only three of these have ever been known to spread infection to humans, so far entirely confined to east Asia.

What the Tory agriculture spokesman Owen Paterson MP wanted to know was which ‘sub-types’ Defra had identified in the birds held in quarantine. Did they include those relevant to any threat to human health?

He had to put his question three times. Not only did the chief vet and her colleagues fail to give a proper answer, they did not even seem to understand the relevance of the question.

Yet it is on the judgement of these supposed ‘experts’ – and the decisions which follow - that the future of Britain’s poultry industry, and possibly the health of many people in this country now rest. It is not a reassuring prospect.