BSE: The Need for a Second BSE Inquiry

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The video suggests that a second public inquiry into BSE is needed. A second inquiry would elaborate on the previous Phillips report into BSE from 2000. A further investigation would be similar to the 2016 inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. It would try and uncover the truth to a greater extent than the Phillips report. An inquiry should have powers to subpoena witnesses and demand the production of documents where necessary.

Hopefully, a second BSE report can be less acrimonious than the inquest into Hillsborough. However, if a 'second inquiry' is going to be less acrimonious, then it will have to start by accepting that the intensive agricultural and food system needs to change. For example, animal welfare needs to be improved and this is discussed below. It also needs to be recognised that the food consumer should, generally, not be held responsible for the failings of the food system. If the government can identify the need for positive change then public confidence can be restored in food safety policy.

Many of the decision-makers involved in the BSE crisis have now died, so the emphasis of a second report would be on 'looking forward' and offering guidance for future policy. Policy makers need to consider what is appropriate action and how much money should be spent on future preventative action.

Informing future policy: How much money should have been spent on the prevention of BSE?

In the 1980's, the government made a decision on what economic intervention was appropriate to prevent the spread of BSE; and the consequent spread of CJD. Billions of pounds could have spent in trying to prevent CJD from emerging in the 1990's. It was argued that: "the cost of a full BSE risk eradication programme in the UK in the mid-1980's would have been in the order of £20 billion at 2000 prices. It is difficult to imagine any government, then or now, having been keen or willing to devote such a huge sum to an entirely unknown and speculative risk" (van Zwanenberg and Millstone 2005:6-7). The question is what would have been an appropriate amount of money to spend?

There is also a deeper political question which needs to be addressed. It was argued that British food safety policy, regarding BSE, was "as un-precautionary as they (the state) could possibly get away with" (van Zwanenberg and Millstone 2005:7). The implication is that actions taken around 1986 was insufficient. If the safeguards put in place are seen as inadequate, then an alternative 'appropriate level of protection' needs to be found. This can then guide the level of resources to be devoted to a preventative safety policy. This topic should consider moral concerns, such as animal welfare, as well as an assessment of risk to the human population. If society is going to prevent future emergencies, such as the BSE crisis, then preventative action needs to be taken from the start.

Jeremy Rifkin's Beyond Beef (chapter 18) describes the poor animal welfare conditions in late 19th century abattoirs. The roots of BSE can be traced back to the unacceptable treatment of cattle going back 150 years. The poor treatment of cattle may help explain the spread of the disease. It is also possible that a disregard for animal health caused the initial illness to develop. It is this kind of moral issue which needs to be addressed if humanity is going to avoid future crises such as BSE.

The rest of the discussion provides some reasons for another BSE inquiry. Essentially, more needs to be known about the spread of CJD and BSE.

1) The cause(s) of BSE remains unclear

First, the cause of BSE, and CJD, remains unclear; more than 20 years after the link between BSE and CJD was announced. The possibility that bovine growth hormone caused BSE has been discussed on this website but a government inquiry needs to examine this in more detail.

2) Coroners are refusing to test for an infection which causes vCJD

Third, it is the author's understanding that post-mortem examinations are not being undertaken on dementia patients to find out whether they had CJD. Consequently, there could be a significant level of CJD that remains undetected.

3) The rising death toll from sporadic CJD needs to be addressed

The British public needs to know what is causing the increase in sporadic CJD. Research from independent scientists, in continental Europe and America, is needed in addition to research from the UK. This is because scientific investigation, from outside the UK, may be able to offer a fresh perspective into sporadic CJD.


If a small number of questions, such as those above, can be identified and addressed then there is scope for a shorter and more incisive second BSE inquiry. An inquiry whose main purpose would be to inform future policy.

Book and Journal References

Millstone E. and Van Zwanenberg P. (2005), BSE: risk, science and governance, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Video which outlines the reasons for a second BSE Inquiry