BSE advisers to meet in public in anti-secrecy drive

April 15, 2002 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
Scientists advising the government on BSE and its deadly human form are to hold their meetings in public from the autumn in the latest move to be more open about the consequences of Britain's most costly peacetime disaster.

The spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee (Seac) established the probable link between the two diseases in 1996 and thus precipitated the collapse in public confidence in a government that was complacent about the risk to the population.

Now Seac has decided that only scientific papers seen before publication and information that might be commercially confidential will be discussed in private. The 13 members of Seac are appointed by health and agriculture ministers but are determined to maintain independence.

They have been impressed by the example set by the food standards agency, which holds its board meetings in public and has sent shivers through Whitehall and the farming and food industries by its readiness to update the public on issues such as the possibil ity of BSE in sheep. It is understood Seac also might have its own website where background papers discussed by the committee will be published.

The committee was established in 1990, and, like its predecessors from 1986, much of its advice was confidential. That began to change after the 1996 debacle which has probably cost Britain about pounds 6bn as well as unquantifiable human misery.

The committee has since then made public statements, held press conferences and published minutes of meetings, but only after informing ministers and top civil servants about its deliberations.

The Phillips inquiry into the BSE catastrophe said in its report 18 months ago that politicians, scientists and administrators must be far more open about risk.

Scientific uncertainty about the risks to human health had existed from almost the moment BSE was discovered in 1986, but it was 10 years before the doubts were officially recognised by the scientific or political establishment.

Meanwhile, dentists and doctors have been warned not to believe "excessive claims" allegedly being made by some manufacturers of sterilisation equipment about their ability to remove deformed prion proteins that might pose a theoretical risk of spreading variant CJD between patients.

The government's medical devices agency has issued a safety notice stating that advertisements for equipment which can cost well over pounds 800 could "mislead" users into thinking an 18-minute steam cycle on dental or surgical instruments could alone minimise the risk.

The agency was unable to cite examples of false claims when the Guardian asked for them.

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