Scandalous scaremongering brings no cheer

'Tis the season of goodwill towards all men but it is difficult to feel charitable towards some sections of the scientific community whose scandalous scaremongering has caused the farming industry so much misery and hardship in recent years and cost the taxpayer billions of pounds.
I am indebted to no less an authority than "Muckraker" in Private Eye - not my usual source for authentic information on matters farming - for the latest statistics which dramatically illustrate what a sham the whole BSE episode has proved to be.
In 1996, at the height of the BSE crisis, the world was being warned on BBC's Newsnight by Prof John Pattison of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that up to 500,000 deaths could be expected as a result of eating BSE-infected beef.
At the same time, for those daft enough to listen, the ringing tones of the barmy Prof Richard Lacey had the nation believing that by the year 2015 the French would be slamming the door on the Channel tunnel as Britons died of new variant CJD in their millions.
Their blood-curling predictions were trotted out by headline-seeking politicians and a gullible media always ready to dramatise a flawed view as the authentic voice of reason. The old journalistic cliche of not letting the facts spoil a good story springs to mind.
Six years on and what do we find? No link has been established between nvCJD and eating beef despite scientists best efforts and more than #30 million a year in research funding - a nice little earner for the small group of scientists involved.
Mercifully, not only has the number of deaths from nvCJD never exceeded 28 in one year but the disease would appear to be on the wane with only 15 deaths recorded this year, taking the total to 119 since 1994. We can onlyhope and pray that this trend will continue as it is undoubtedly a horrible disease and 15 deaths a year is still 15 too many.
No doubt the scientists will claim that their exaggerated claims spurred the Government into action but one cannot help feeling that reasoned argument and common sense, without the melodrama and public hysteria caused by the likes of Professors Pattison and Lacey, could have achieved the same objective of reducing deaths from nvCJD.
There is, of course, no room for complacency. The fact that no link between beef-eating and nvCJD has been established does not mean that it doesn't exist. And the long incubation period of nvCJD means there could yet conceivably be an explosion of nvCJD cases.
Prof Lacey, who has gone strangely quiet on the matter of late, was arguing until fairly recently that we are sitting on a time-bomb. Hopefully, the action taken to ban the use of recycled meat-and-bone meal in the diets of animals and the removal of cattle over 30 months of age from the food chain has ensured that such a scenario is unlikely. It all begs the question of what was it all about? The cynics amongst us might suggest it was simply scientists keeping themselves in jobs by persuading the Government to award lucrative research contracts.
One of the main beneficiaries, Prof John Collings of St Mary's, Paddington, keeps suggesting that he will soon clinch the evidence if the Government continue his project injecting massive amounts of BSE prions into the brains of mice.
He is now clutching at straws by claiming a 400 percent increase in "BSE deaths" by
including 588 cases of sporadic CJD recorded since 1990. Why sporadic CJD, which was identified as far back as the 1920's, could be caused by BSE after 1990 but not before, is not clear.
The banning of meat-and-bone meal was probably a sensible precaution. But was it necessary to inflict so much damage on the farming industry by taking older cattle out of the food chain and creating such a fuss that much of the world imposed a ban on the import of British beef - a ban which France has only recently lifted?
And given the current situation isn't it about time that older cattle were being allowed back into the food chain? After all, it is more than four years since the ban on meat-and-bone meal was effectively imposed and the cattle passport system introduced, so - even if some sort of link with nvCJD were to be established - cattle up to four years of age patently pose no risk to human health.
All the traumas of BSE have conveniently been overtaken by the more recent trauma of foot and mouth disease but it is now time for the Government to take action to normalise the industry.
Human health must always take priority over economic and trade considerations but a balanced view on the evidence now available suggests that the handling of the crisis by successive governments has been a massive over-reaction which has caused untold damage to the industry.
Billions of pound have been spent unnecessarily disposing of stock deemed unsuitable for the human food chain and Scotland alone has lost an export market which was worth #120 million a year.
It is a sorry tale of bombast and blunder which highlights the pitfalls of the type of knee-jerk reaction to which politicians are all too prone these days.
It will bring no comfort to those who have lost loved ones from nvCJD to learn that it is increasingly unlikely that eating beef is the cause of the disease.
But lessons have been learned and even if some sort of link is finally confirmed, the public can be reassured that the belt and braces approach which the Government has adopted, with all the bureaucracy which goes along with it, has made British beef the safest in the world.
So, if you're not having turkey this Christmas, enjoy a piece of good Scotch beef. It is tasty, nutritious and safe.
Have a very happy Christmas.

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