Pigswill, lies, evasion - and why it's MAFF that must be put down

April 26, 2001 Daily Mail (London) by Geoffrey Lean

JUST when we thought no incompetence, no idiocy, no arrogant disregard of public health from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could surprise us, we are forced to think again.

For MAFF, the ministry that gave us the human form of mad cow disease - and has so comprehensively bungled the foot-and-mouth crisis - has now been caught allowing pigs to be fed to pigs.

And it has done so in direct contravention of a warning by its own BSE committee that this could lead to a 'major epidemic'.

Every year, we eat more than 100,000 pigs which have been fed on swill.

Now we learn that up to 12pc of that noxious brew - already believed to be the source of the foot-and-mouth outbreak - is made up of pork and pig bones.

Gruesome Yet more than three years ago - in the wake of the realisation that feeding cows to cows had engendered BSE and allowed it to spread to people - the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) said that no animal should be made to cannibalise its own kind.

Although pigs, in theory, cannot contract mad cow disease, SEAC warned that 'recycling of waste as feed within a species creates the potential for a major epidemic, such as that seen with BSE'.

It added that such an outbreak would be 'difficult to detect' and recommended that MAFF should stop the practice at 'the earliest opportunity'.

Agriculture ministers have since given the impression that they dutifully followed this advice. In fact, only the remnants of pigs from slaughterhouse waste were banned from this gruesome recycling.

Pigswill - a cocktail of boiled-up waste collected from restaurants, canteens, schools and food companies - continued to contain pork.

It beggars belief, or it would if MAFF were not involved.

But it is of one distressing piece with the entrenched attitudes that allowed BSE to spread and contaminate our food, and which have turned an outbreak of foot-and-mouth a relatively mild animal disease - into a national disaster. For both were MAFF-made crises.

For years MAFF, with almost criminal complacency, ignored the threat from BSE. It allowed more than 700,000 diseased cows to be slaughtered for food.

Almost all of us will have eaten contaminated beef as a result.

No one can tell how many of us will, in the end, contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE.

So far, 86 have died horrific, painful deaths, but the eventual toll could run into thousands or even hundreds of thousands.

And yet MAFF, in the words of last year's official Phillips inquiry into the BSE crisis, 'followed an approach whose object was sedation'.

The ministry continually denied that humans could be infected by eating beef. It suppressed alternative views and marginalised scientists who warned of the danger.

Damaging Foot-and-mouth, by contrast, poses little danger to people, despite this week's discovery that it may have spread to slaughtermen. Even animals normally recover from it - or would if they were allowed to.

But MAFF has treated it as a truly terrifying plague, killing not just infected animals but hundreds of thousands of healthy ones, and burning them with medieval relish.

The costs have been horrific.

Hundreds of farmers have seen their lives' work go, literally, up in smoke; their heartbroken children have had pet animals heartlessly killed.

The tourist industry, like the rural economy, has suffered devastating damage from which it will take years to recover. By one estimate, the crisis is costing Britain's businesses GBP 20 billion; by another it will cut economic growth by a third.

And now, it is emerging that the pyres and the burial of carcasses are endangering health and the environment.

It has all, of course, been made much worse by MAFF's slowness and incompetence in getting to grips with the spread of the disease and executing its slaughter policy.

But much of the pain could have been avoided had it adopted a policy of vaccination rather than overkill, as even some officials initially opposed to injections now admit.

MAFF's negligence over pigswill, BSE and foot-and-mouth stems from the same root. It failed to act over banning pork for economic reasons.

It played down BSE because it was afraid of damaging sales of beef at home and abroad.

And it has sanctioned billions of pounds' worth of damage to tourism and the economy to try to safeguard meat exports worth some GBP 570 million a year.

Thus it is revealed in its true colours. It cares little for our health.

It is not much concerned even with animal suffering.

It has little interest in the prosperity of the countryside as a whole, or even that of most farmers - after all, its policies of increasing intensification have driven 330,000 of them out of business since World War II.

Its only real concern is for the profitability of 'agribusiness'.

It is time to call a halt; a halt to the complacency, and incompetence; a halt to the narrow pursuit of a small, sectional interest at everyone else's expense; a halt to the evasions and downright lies. MAFF must go.

Tony Blair - livid, not least at being forced to postpone the Election he has planned so carefully for four years - is now determined to abolish the ministry.

But his favoured solution could make things worse.

The plan is to replace MAFF with a new Department of Rural Affairs, responsible for both agriculture and the countryside as a whole, taking on the rural duties of the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions.

At first sight, it is an attractive prospect. The new department would be required to take a wider perspective than just the interests of agribusiness.

But it has a fatal flaw. The same ministry would become both poacher and gamekeeper.

It would be charged with both promoting agriculture and protecting the countryside which, over the past 40 years, intensive farming has done so much to damage.

Ruin No doubt it would be supposed to make a new start. No doubt the cabinet minister appointed to start it up would be full of good intentions.

But the same civil servants who promoted intensive agriculture, gave us BSE and bungled the foot-and-mouth crisis would still be there, complete with their obscurantist culture. Only now, they would have more power to ruin the countryside than ever before.

No. MAFF must be truly abolished, not just in name.

Responsibility for agriculture should be transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry. It should have its own minister there, just as has energy - once also a department on its own - but it would no longer run the show.

Environment ministers should continue to look after their issues, and not have them subjected to other interests.

Otherwise we will surely find that the old unreconstructed MAFF culture, with its lopsided priorities, will never stop giving us nasty and sometimes fatal surprises.

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