Science in Society Archive

The Inside Story of BSE

Prof. Peter Saunders reviews
The Politics of BSE, Richard Packer, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006. ISBN 1-4039-8529-4

BSE transmission to humans admitted after 10 years

It's twenty years since reports first appeared of cattle in the UK coming down with a disease now known as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis). The number of animals affected rapidly increased, and because the disease was both fatal to cattle and also similar to at least two diseases that are fatal to humans, Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD) and kuru, people began to worry about the danger to human health. For ten years, the government kept reassuring the public that there was no risk involved in eating beef. Many of us can still remember how the Secretary of State for Agriculture John Gummer was shown on television feeding a beefburger to his daughter to demonstrate how confident he was that it was safe.

Then, on 20 March 1996, the Secretary of State for Health Stephen Dorell announced that contrary to what he and his fellow ministers had been telling us for the past ten years, BSE can be transmitted to humans and in humans, it leads to an inevitably fatal disease known as variant CJD (vCJD).

That was a bit of a bombshell, with an immediate and lasting effect on public opinion. It probably did more than any other single event to shake the public's confidence in government pronouncements about science, and is one of the major reasons that the British public has steadfastly refused to accept GM food, despite constant insistence by government agencies that the products are “perfectly safe”.

Inside MAFF

The Politics of BSE is a story told by someone who was a senior civil servant in the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) throughout the period leading up to the BSE crisis and its aftermath, and was its Permanent Secretary from 1993 to 2000. Richard Packer describes the events as seen from the inside, combining the care and attention to detail of a Whitehall report with flashes of irony and invective. It's not an unbiased account, given the circumstances you could hardly expect one, but there is a lot to be learned from what Packer writes.

For example, why are governments so often reluctant to implement obviously sensible recommendations? Packard reminds us that there are always vested interests, such as industry, the unions, and, in the case of MAFF, farmers. The political cost of antagonising one of these groups can be much greater than the gain from doing what the public want. Departments do not have large reserves of unallocated funding, and so are very reluctant to pay for something not in the budget for that year. When MAFF felt it had to commission more research into BSE, it found the money by reducing research in other areas. So ministers will always be looking for a plausible excuse for doing nothing.

Finally, the way the system works means that both ministers and their officials have a great disincentive for sticking their necks out. If you had watched the BBC series Yes, Minister , you'll remember that when Sir Humphrey wanted to discourage the minister from doing something, he would describe it as: “A very brave decision.” And as soon as there is any sign of trouble, putting things right can be a much lower priority than making sure that whatever happens, you don't get the blame.

The Southwood Committee

Not only is Packer critical of the way scientific advice is used, he also criticises those who provide it. In 1989, a committee chaired by the Oxford biologist Richard Southwood, had given its opinion that there was no danger to humans from BSE. It did recommend, however, that there should be a new committee set up to give advice on BSE and similar diseases, and this led to the formation of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC).

Over the next few years, evidence began to accumulate suggesting a link between BSE and vCJD. Packer criticises the members of the SEAC for not bringing this to MAFF's attention in time, thus leaving Stephen Dorrell having to make his unexpected and dramatic announcement in 1996.

Packer argues that this was because the scientists are typically slow to report something new that they have found or suspect to be the case. He claims this is partly because the scientists are afraid of looking foolish if they turn out to be wrong and partly because they want to hold back until they have enough evidence to be sure of getting full credit for their discovery.

There's some truth in what Packer says, but there is also a more important reason. Scientists have learned from bitter experience that if you report something that people in power don't like, your career may be in jeopardy. That's not only true if you turn out to be wrong, it can also happen if you are right. Arpad Pusztai, Nancy Olivieri, Aubrey Blumsohn and many others would all have had much easier lives if they had kept quiet about what they had discovered. If our reaction to bad news is to shoot the messenger, we have no right to complain if nobody warns us when we are running into danger.

Packer's account of the workings of the Southwood Committee also provides a worrying insight into the mind of the bureaucrat. While Southwood had found no evidence for danger to humans, he was still worried about the practice of feeding animal waste to cattle. He reasoned that while animals that normally eat meat would have defences against diseases that can be transmitted in that way, cattle, which are naturally herbivores, would not. So he wanted to include in his report a recommendation against the recycling of animal waste, at least to cattle.

Southwood did not raise this issue until the final drafting of the report. According to Packer, this was because he expected that MAFF would oppose the proposal because of the cost to the industry, and he hoped that by leaving it to the last minute he would make it difficult for them to block it. If that was his aim, he failed, because MAFF did object and the recommendation was watered down.

Packer acknowledges that it was Southwood who was right, but he still he puts the blame not on his own Department but on what he describes as Southwood's “naïve and unwise” tactics. He writes, “No doubt MAFF were irritated by what appeared to them to be the sneaky way Southwood had gone about things.” Of course when he writes of MAFF, he presumably includes himself.

Southwood may not have been wise in the ways of Whitehall, but he shouldn't have had to be. There must have been people within MAFF who could understand what he was saying and why it mattered; or if there weren't, there ought to have been. Packer's defence is indefensible: “The scientist we chose to give us advice told us something that we ought to have taken into account, but it's not our fault for ignoring him because he wasn't enough of a politician to know how to force it down our throats.”

The chief conclusion of the Southwood Report was that as the risk of transmission of BSE to humans “appears remote”, it was most unlikely to have any implications for human health. It added, however, that if there were any implications, they would be extremely serious.

Eleven years later, long after it had been shown that BSE can be transmitted to humans, the BSE Inquiry chaired by Lord Phillips found: “Unhappily, the Southwood Report was treated by many … in MAFF and …[the Department of Health] … as if it contained definitive conclusions based on an evaluation of adequate data by expert scientists in relation to the extent both of the risk and of the precautionary measures necessary to counter that rise.”

Packer responds angrily to this criticism of his Department. He writes: “The Inquiry's description, quoted above, is a travesty. There is, admittedly, no view so foolish that nobody has held it, so I cannot claim with certainty that nobody treated Southwood's views in the way described. I can say that I never met anybody who did so. It was well-appreciated by all that Southwood had had to work with very little data and that his views were as a result necessarily tentative at the time of his Report.”

If Packer's memory serves him well, things must have changed a great deal since he left Whitehall, because there are lots of people today who are more than willing to treat as definitive views that are based on inadequate data. (See GM Rice Contamination - How Regulators Tried to Sidestep the Law, this issue.)

What is more, it's easy to see why they should. As Packer explains earlier in the book, the combination of vested interests, limited funding and the importance of not sticking one's neck out generally make governments very reluctant to take action. Ministers and officials are therefore always on the lookout for justifications for doing nothing, and that naturally tempts them to turn tentative assurances into definitive conclusions.

If Southwood's conclusions were only tentative, and he himself always insisted afterwards that they had been, what he wrote might have been appropriate in a scientific paper. It was not, however, suitable in advice to a government department that he knew was very much hoping to be told there was no risk. They were almost certain to translate “appears remote” into “impossible, except that we scientists don't like to use that word.”

A similar shift in meaning occurs now when supporters of GM crops mention the possibility that humans or animals might be harmed or that the there might be horizontal gene transmission to other species. The difference is that, unlike Southwood, they do it deliberately. They use terms like “highly unlikely” fully intending them to be understood by governments and the public to mean “for all intents and purposes, impossible.”


Packer gives us other insights into the way government works, or fails to. For example, in setting the scene for the BSE crisis, he describes the situation in UK slaughterhouses in the late 80s. It is not a pretty picture. Hygiene standards were often very low, because while MAFF set the rules, enforcement was the responsibility of local authorities, and many of them were unable to carry this out adequately. That had been the case for a long time, but it was only then seen as a problem because the UK was going to have to comply with the much stricter EU standards.

The Prime Minister John Major expressed the government's view in a letter to the Secretary of State John Gummer: “The regulatory burden we are imposing on business frustrates enterprise, innovation and growth. Regulations result in lost jobs, reduced international competitiveness and higher public expenditure. We must change all this…. We need to look at the new rules on meat hygiene which have caused alarm to local businesses, including butchers and village shops selling meat. Do we go too far in bowing to EU pressure on such things?”

This sounds just like George Bush explaining why the USA cannot afford to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, or Tony Blair defending GM crops. Major was putting commercial interests, or what he perceived to be commercial interests, ahead of protecting health and the environment.

There can be a very wide gap between what regulations say and what actually happens. People who now argue that nuclear energy and GM crops are safe always assume that the regulations will be followed to the letter. But that isn't what happens in the real world. The recent discovery of illegal GM-tainted rice in shipments from the USA is the most recent of numerous incidents of transgenic contamination since GM crops were launched in 1992. Regul ations that are not being properly enforced can be worse than useless, because they give the public a false sense of security.

The Politics of GM

When we read about a disaster like BSE, it is very tempting to feel superior to the people who were involved, and to think that the same mistakes would never be made again. We don't feed animal waste to cattle any more, and if BSE were to come back, the government wouldn't try to convince the public that there is no possible danger to humans. But that's not to say we won't make the same sorts of mistakes and for the same sorts of reasons that Packer describes.

Today we are constantly being assured by industry and by the government that there is no risk either to health or to the environment from GM crops, when in fact there is abundant evidence that there is [1] (see GM Egg Plant Contains Bt Toxin Linked to Hundreds of Allergy Cases and Thousands of Sheep Deaths , the latest of a long series of articles in SiS reporting on the health hazards of GM crops). It may well mean that a few years from now, someone will be writing a book called The Politics of GM explaining in great detail how it was that, once again, our government failed to protect us. Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Article first published 07/11/06


  1. Ho MW and Cummins J. GM Egg Plant Contains Bt toxin linked to hundreds of allergy cases and thousands of sheep deaths. Science in Society 31 , 8-9, 2006.

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a spider?