British Public Was Misled
On Mad Cow Crisis For Years
By Rebecca Allison,3604,388188,00.html
LONDON (Reuters) - British government officials misled the public for years over the dangers of British beef and the risk of "mad cow'' (BSE) disease spreading to humans, an official report said Thursday.
The two-and-a-half year inquiry said officials and ministers in Britain's previous Conservative government, haunted by fears of consumer panic and the loss of valuable beef exports, doggedly stuck to a mistaken "campaign of reassurance.''
Lack of communication between key government departments and ``unacceptable'' bureaucratic delays also hampered the response to the crisis that first struck British herds in 1986 and claimed its first human victim 10 years later.
Reacting to the report, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government said it planned to set up a compensation scheme for the victims of the human form of mad cow disease, which has so far killed more than 70 people.
``The government's preferred option would be to establish a compensation scheme, resulting in a special trust fund which could amount to millions of pounds,'' Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said.
Officials conceded that no one could predict the eventual number of victims of the disease, which has a lengthy incubation period, so the final compensation bill could run much higher.
Brown said a civil service commission would investigate whether disciplinary action should be taken over the affair that devastated Britain's beef herd as animals were slaughtered in their thousands and cost billions of pounds in compensation.
TV pictures of stricken cattle, shaking uncontrollably and staggering across Britain's farmyards, shocked consumers and led to an international boycott of British beef.
``Public Betrayal''
At the height of the crisis, the then Conservative Minister for Agriculture John Gummer was shown on television eating a hamburger made from British beef and feeding one to his young daughter in a mistaken bid to show the meat was safe.
The report, led by senior judge Lord Phillips, said the government had not set out to deceive the public but ``followed an approach whose object was sedation,'' lulling people into believing beef was safe and BSE could not be passed to humans.
``The impression thus given to the public ... was a significant factor leading to the public feeling of betrayal when it was announced on 20 March 1996 that BSE was likely to have been transmitted to people,'' it said.
Since then more than 70 people have died from BSE's human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an uncurable disease that causes dementia, blindness and paralysis and condemns victims to a lingering death over many months.
``Families all over the UK have been left wondering whether the same fate awaits them,'' the report said.
It highlighted ``ignorance and failure of communication'' between government departments and criticized senior officials, but said it would not set out to shame ``villains or scapegoats.''
Conservatives Sorry
The report called for greater openness from ministers and transparency in dealing with scientific research. ``The public should be trusted to respond rationally to openness,'' it said.
Farmers said publicly funded research was vital to deal with any future crisis. ``The whole areas of animal diseases that can be transmitted to man ... must be a key area of government sponsored research,'' National Farmers' Union head Ben Gill said.
Conservative agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo expressed regret for the BSE affair, which erupted while his party was in office.
``I want to say I am truly sorry for what has happened. And I apologize to families who have suffered bereavement,'' he said.
``All of us, when we read it, must accept our own responsibility for the shortcomings that were made,'' said former Prime Minister John Major who was in charge of the government at the time.
Eighty-four people have been struck down by new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or vCJD. More than 70 have died and no one is sure how many others may be harboring the disease.
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