The lesson of BSE
"BSE has caused a harrowing fatal disease for humans. As we sign this Report the number of people dead and thought to be dying stands at over 80, most of them young. They and their families have suffered terribly. Families all over the UK have been left wondering whether the same fate awaits them."
So begins the 16 volume report by Lord Phillips on the handling of the BSE / vCJD issue – the 'crisis' which has led to deep suspicions about the food we eat and to a loss of faith in the scientists and government officials who are responsible for advising us about health risks.
The Phillips report identifies the failures in process which led to delays in introducing adequate regulations to eradicate BSE from cattle, and hence the risks of contracting vCJD. There is also criticism of the implication in government messages that BSE was not transferable to humans – a statement that was only true if measures to remove infected tissue from slaughtered cattle had been rigorously applied. It seems they were not.
Given the horrendous nature of vCJD, and given continuing uncertainties about its incubation period and the potential death toll that might ultimately ensue, we are right to feel betrayed by the very people we should normally trust to provide us with the accurate and balanced information we need in order to make sensible decisions about how we live our lives. The handling of the BSE affair, however, now presents an additional and quite different risk. It is the risk that we now reject the very scientific enterprise through which so many of the beneficial developments in nutrition and health have been achieved in recent years.
Lord Haskins, who is Chairman of the government's Better Regulation Task Force, comments in the Financial Times:
"There is a danger that, in the light of BSE, governments will take an excessively cautious approach to risk management. That is understandable but it is also wrong. The likely consequence is to create much greater, unintended damage in the future."
Lord Haskins also notes that inappropriate application of the precautionary principle – i.e. in a way which stifles scientific innovation – will lead to greater, rather than fewer, health risks "because a possible solution to a human health problem or food supply will be rejected." And he is right. We must learn from the mistakes of BSE. We must correct those failings and progressively restore confidence in the management of what we eat – the unenviable role now of the recently established Food Standards Agency. But we must also look forward, accepting that there is an element of risk in all aspects of our everday lives.
If the BSE crisis serves only to lead us away from carefully managed, science-based approaches to human progress, we will have learned the wrong lesson.