Campaigners demand 'mad cow disease' criminal inquiry

Christine Lord and other parents outside 10 Downing Street After handing in their petition the group was thrown out of the Ministry of Justice as part of its protest

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Campaigners calling for a criminal inquiry into human deaths linked to "mad cow disease" have taken their case to Downing Street.

They claim previous governments knew meat from cows infected with BSE posed a risk to humans but kept it quiet.

The first cases of BSE were identified in 1986 but the government continued to reassure the public in subsequent years.

Relatives of those who have died from the human form of mad cow disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD), handed in a petition to 10 Downing Street earlier and laid a wreath in memory of the 171 British victims of the disease.

They then moved on to the Ministry of Justice where the police were called to remove them during a protest against Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, who was a health minister and health secretary in the 1980s.

Among the protesters was Christine Lord, 53, from Portsmouth, Hampshire, who lost her 24-year-old son Andrew Black to the brain-wasting disease.

She said: "They (the government) didn't give us an informed choice, or any other family an informed choice. The mantra was 'British beef is safe for you and your children to eat'.

"We're now asking the prime minister to request an independent criminal investigation that has no involvement with any minister who was involved in BSE."

In 1990, the then agriculture minister John Gummer made a public show of feeding a burger to his four-year-old daughter Cordelia.

Beef off menu

Infected material continued to go into the food chain until 1996, 10 years after the emergence of BSE, despite what campaigners say was widespread concern amongst government scientists.

In the late 1980s Mike Harding was the captain of the research vessel Discovery. It was one of a fleet of ships operated by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Former agriculture minister John Gummer and his daughter Cordelia eating beef burgers Agriculture minister John Gummer said at the time he was not worried

He said: "The scientists on board had serious doubts about eating British beef. Subsequently I took my own family off British beef, and we haven't eaten it since."

By 1989, British beef was off the menu on all NERC vessels, Mr Harding said.

"There was a notice saying British beef would no longer be served on board because of concerns raised about BSE by members of the scientific community and that foreign beef would be used. We subsequently loaded Uruguayan beef," he said.

"The fact that it happened made me think that maybe if the British farming industry knew that a UK government ship was loading foreign beef, at a time when they were trying to sell to everybody else, they would think it was an ironic situation."

Meanwhile, the UK's Ministry for Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) continued to reassure the public, something which should never have happened according to an expert in biological risks and food safety who worked at MAFF throughout the BSE crisis.

Lack of transparency

The official, who asked not to be named, told BBC News: "The first thing is that you ask the right questions. What is the nature of the risk? How certain or uncertain are you about the risk? What more do we need to do to find out more about the risk?

"The conclusion to all that should have been the risk of BSE passing to humans from what we know is probably low, but we know so little that we can give no reassurances at all."

The scientist, who was consulted during the subsequent government inquiry, was also critical of that process and the 16-volume Phillips Report which followed in the year 2000.

Christine Lord and her son Andrew Black Christine Lord's son Andrew Black, 24, died of vCJD in 2007

It exonerated the government, and concluded that ministers had acted on the advice they had been given.

But the scientist claims witnesses were rehearsed, officials were deliberately asked "unintelligent questions" and that the inquiry did nothing to show how the public was left unprotected.

"It hasn't changed, it's got worse if anything, rather than better," he said.

"The Phillips inquiry didn't highlight the problem. It just obfuscated it by huge amounts of verbiage. It didn't achieve anything."

Ms Lord added: "We feel there's been a lack of transparency and honesty. That culture of secrecy killed my son."

A Downing Street spokesman said all petitions receive a response but would not comment further.

The Department of Health said: "The measures successive governments have taken to reduce the risks of both primary vCJD infection and of person-to-person spread have led, since 2000, to a sustained fall in the number of UK cases of this devastating disease."

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