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Extract from Booker's Notebook 18/05/2003

Britain's most expensive myth

Everyone knows that the claimed link between BSE and the singularly unpleasant disease "new variant CJD" set off the greatest and most expensive food scare in history. In the days that followed the health minister Stephen Dorrell's fateful announcement in March 1996, predictions of deaths from eating beef ranged from 500,000 by the government's chief BSE scientist, John Patteson, to many millions (The Observer).

With very few exceptions (this column being one), the media unquestioningly accepted thatthere was such a link. As one result, 3 billion of public money was spent on incinerating elderly cows. The costs to industry and the UK economy, not least from a consequent thicket of further regulations, have been many times that, and are still continuing.

The chief reason for doubting a link between beef and CJD lay in the epidemiological evidence, which even in 1996 suggested that the promised epidemic was a fantasy. Over the past seven years, as the incidence curve has begun a steady fall, that has seemed ever more certain. Now, after reviewing the evidence, Professor Roy Anderson and his Imperial College team have published a revised estimate of the total number of victims likely to die of vCJD in the future (link available through www.warmwell.com). Their figure? Not 400,000, or 40,000, just 40.

As Britain's farming and food industry grapples with the latest regulatory insanity inspired by the BSE scare, the EU Animal By-Products Regulation that is predicted to drain billions more pounds from the UK economy, it is clearer than ever that Mr Dorrell's monumentally foolish statement in 1996 was the most costly blunder ever perpetrated by a British minister.


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