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BSE outbreak: initial government response

First cases of BSE in cattle

In December 1986, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered by the State Veterinary Service in the UK. It caused irreversible changes to the brain of cattle and was fatal.

The pathology department of the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) first investigated the death of a cow that had succumbed to BSE in September 1985. By 1987, it concluded that the reported cases of BSE had been caused by the consumption of meat and bone meal, made from animal carcasses and included in cattle feed.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) recognised that BSE in cattle might have implications for human health. By 1987, officials were concerned about whether animals showing signs of BSE were safe to be slaughtered for food.

Southwood working party

It took until March 1988 for the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Sir Donald Acheson, to be notified about the emergence of BSE. The CMO convened a working party, known as the Southwood working party, to advise on the implications of BSE. The working party recommended that cattle showing signs of BSE should be slaughtered.

On 9 February 1989, the working party submitted a report to the government, suggesting that it was most unlikely that BSE would have any implications for human health.

Rising concerns and government denial

In 1990, a domestic cat was diagnosed as suffering from a spongiform encephalopathy, leading to concern that BSE had passed to cats and, therefore, could pass to humans.

Until 1996, the government told the public that there was no evidence that BSE could be transmitted to humans, that BSE would not pose a risk to humans and that it was safe to eat beef. 

John Gummer, Minister for Agriculture, famously made a public show of feeding his daughter a hamburger in the midst of the scare in 1990.

The link between BSE in cows and vCJD in humans was not acknowledged until 20 March 1996.



The National Archives.
The BSE Inquiry: The Report.
The Inquiry into BSE and variant CJD in the United Kingdom.
The National Archives; 2000.

John Gummer: Beef eater.
BBC; 2000.