'No Villains' in BSE Tragedy

London--The toll was enormous--dozens of U.K. deaths, tens of thousands of livelihoods destroyed or made miserable, 170,000 cattle slaughtered, and a $7.5 billion bill. Yesterday, an independent panel reported that Britain's BSE outbreak was caused by a whole series of mistakes and miscommunications at many levels. But in the end, the committee found "no heroes or villains" and no government cover-up. "If action had been taken earlier, infection could have been reduced," committee chairman Lord Philips told reporters after the findings were published on 26 October. "But the situation was bad before anyone knew what was happening."

The 16-volume report concludes the official inquiry into the outbreak of BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a brain disease that affects cattle, and its deadly human counterpart, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). Consumption of BSE-infected beef is now believed to be the main cause of the current epidemic of vCJD in Britain. So far, nearly 80 people have died from the disease since the first case was reported in 1995, and estimates of future losses vary widely (Science, 1 September, p. 1452).

Despite widespread criticism of previous British government officials who sought to play down the risk of BSE, the new report avoids an outright condemnation of the government or senior civil servants. But while refusing to point the blame at anyone, the three-member panel criticizes just about everyone. Politicians failed to give a balanced picture of the risks of BSE, yet impossibly expected scientists to come up with clear-cut answers to a mysterious health threat. Communication broke down between departments and between senior civil servants and ministers. Farmers, animal feed producers, and slaughterhouses ignored safety regulations. Legislative barriers--such as European Union regulations--prevented swift action.

Scientists do not escape unscathed. One of the key scientific advisory committees, headed by zoologist Richard Southwood from Oxford University in 1988, favored precautions to reduce the risk of BSE transmission to humans--a risk thought to be remote at the time. But it failed to make this view clear in a final report, Philips said. Science administrators are also culpable, according to the report. In one instance, chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson proposed a "research supremo" to coordinate research and identify gaps in knowledge, but he was opposed by the research councils--Britain's main group of granting agencies--and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, who feared losing their autonomy.

The British government and the House of Commons applauded the conclusions. "The report contains many lessons for public administration," agriculture minister Nick Brown said. An attorney for the victims' families, David Body, calls the findings "a most thorough and proper job" and cautions journalists to read the entire report before reaching any conclusion.

Related site
The entire Philips report