Another food farce

Sunday Times Editorial Oct 21 2001

The latest scandal over botched research into possible BSE in sheep confirms our worst fears about the way Whitehall fulfils its responsibilities for food safety. Anybody relying on government assurances that all was well had their confidence shaken during the BSE disaster in the beef industry. Now we learn that our sheep flock may also have been infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the early 1990s. Experts cannot be sure, however, because they may have been testing the wrong samples, possibly in the wrong way. Officialdom's grudging admission of this laboratory farce would be alarming enough if it were an isolated incident. But it follows a decade of evasions, cover-ups, errors and misjudgments that has culminated in the payment of £4 billion compensation from the taxpayer.

Yet anybody listening to Margaret Beckett defending her reaction to the latest mix-up, in which cow brain samples were mixed up with those from sheep, would imagine she was dealing with an issue of unfortunate news management instead of a matter of vital concern to consumers. Parents were specifically told they had nothing to worry about because British baby food contained no British lamb. Next day, they were told by food manufacturers that it did, and when the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was told so earlier this year, it said there was no need to stop the practice.

What are the FSA and its uninformed chairman, Sir John Krebs, playing at? The agency was set up last year to reassure the public after years of plummeting confidence in the old Ministry of Agriculture, to put the consumer first and reassure us that "the food you eat is safe". It admitted last August that there was "a theoretical risk" of BSE in sheep but did not advise people to stop eating lamb. The baby food industry always denied using suspect beef from heavily infected areas in its products. The question parents urgently want answering now is whether their baby jars of lamb contain a hidden danger, however small. They will not be reassured by Professor Harriet Kimbell, the consumer representative on the government's BSE advisory committee, who says she does not feed British lamb to her teenagers and that the FSA should advise parents about the risks involved.

If she believes that, why has it not done so already? And why did Professor John Collinge, who discovered that the killer disease variant CJD was the human variety of BSE, not get a reply when he urged ministers two years ago to adopt his two-day test for BSE in sheep? Was it because they had already commissioned the research project that Mrs Beckett was told last Wednesday had gone disastrously wrong?

Every time a food safety scandal erupts, we find a trail of unanswered questions and official incompetence. Mrs Beckett's announcement that a scientific audit is to be held is the least she could do. Her comment yesterday that "as far as" she was aware, people were "trying to find out what happened" and "whether there's still anything to learn from the [failed] experiment" sounds alarmingly complacent.

Her new environment, farm and rural affairs department (Defra) was set up to end the culture of cover-up that placed the short-term commercial interests of British agriculture above the overriding concerns of the consumer. That order of priorities crashed in the collapse of consumer confidence and the loss of British markets overseas after the BSE crisis and the foot and mouth epidemic. Mrs Beckett's task as the new minister at Defra is to get to the bottom of this latest scandal before consumers decide that safety is the best policy and that weasel words by the so-called experts are not enough.

A contingency plan already exists to slaughter 40m sheep and ban the eating of lamb if evidence of infection is found. That would be 10 times the size of the foot and mouth slaughter programme and yet another hammer blow to British farming. If exhaustive research proves the British sheep flock to be clear of BSE, all will be well. But the government will have to move fast to convince a worried public.