BSE outbreak: inquiry report

1 October 2000

On 22 December 1997, Minister of Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, announced that an inquiry would be undertaken to review the:

  • emergence of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a fatal neurological disorder of adult cattle)
  • emergence of vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a human transmissible spongiform encephalopathy)
  • adequacy of responses to the disease.

The inquiry followed the widespread belief that the government and its scientific advisers had handled the emergence of BSE badly and that public trust had been undermined. The report, published in October 2000, was critical of the way the crisis had been handled.

The government was acknowledged to have been well meaning, but its lack of transparency, delay in taking actions and its desire not to overreact and cause alarm contributed to failures in the handling of the situation. The report concluded that the escalation of BSE into a crisis was the result of intensive farming and herbivore cows being fed with cow and sheep remains.

The crisis was exacerbated by delays, bureaucracy and lack of rigour of officials in considering how policy should be turned into practice. Furthermore, the adamant reassurance over the safety of meat was considered a significant error, which undermined public confidence.

The report went on to recommend that, in future, even if the risks to humans appear unlikely, reasonable precautions should be taken and the government should be transparent about any risks.

The report also recommended measures to ensure better contingency planning and greater responsibility for the co-ordination of research into new diseases. The report concluded that while the government had not lied to the public about BSE, it was clear that the government reassurance campaign was a mistake that had left the public feeling betrayed.

Source(s)

Phillips LN, Bridgeman J, Ferguson-Smith MA.
The BSE inquiry. Volume 1: Findings and Conclusions.
HMSO; 2000.