historical stuff by Gareth Millward
20 March 1996 – London
While the “BSE crisis” was not a specific event that can be pinned down to a particular day or year, it was one of the stories on the news that I remember vividly as a kid. Concerns had been raised about the safety of food in the past – such as salmonella in eggs1 – but “Mad Cow” seemed to tick all the boxes for a juicy medical scandal that the tabloids in Britain love so much. The subject for 1996, then, is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and its human counterpart New Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease. BSE and vCJD, for short.
BSE had been detected in cattle ten years earlier. It was later found to be caused by a particular protein which was not destroyed through cooking, heat treatment or other traditional forms of food processing. Although cows are usually herbivores, British farms had begun a practice whereby the useless parts of other cattle were ground up and added to their feed to reduce costs. Cows which had died with or of the disease therefore passed on the condition to live cattle – and the cycle continued.2 The government continued to downplay the risk until the mid-90s, when the scientific evidence seemed to point to a link between BSE in cows and vCJD in humans.
On 20 March 1996, Minister for Health Stephen Dorrell announced to Parliament that, contrary to reassurances across the 1990s from the government, BSE could be passed to humans through eating beef. There was public outcry, summed up quite clearly by Harriet Harman’s response to the statement from the opposition benches.
Is it not the case that the time has passed for false reassurance? There must be no more photo-calls of Ministers feeding beefburgers to their children. The question whether there is a link between BSE and CJD is an issue, is it not, of immense importance to consumers, and particularly for parents of young children. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge, as I do, that it is also of immense importance for hundreds of thousands of people who work in farming and the meat industry? Does he acknowledge that the situation remains uncertain and that it is now apparent that there has been too much reassurance and too little action?3
What makes the story remarkable is that vCJD was never widespread. While its effects were devastating, to date only 226 cases of vCJD have been confirmed in humans.4 The idea that Britain’s national dish could be a killer, however, was too good for the press to resist.5 For historians and social scientists, BSE has become an example of how public and media attitudes towards health, risk and uncertainty have played out, often with little bearing on the aetiology of the disease or the “real” danger that the average citizen was ever in.6
BSE was everywhere in the 1990s – or rather, stories about BSE were. It was the first real health scare that I remember, and since then we have been flooded with tabloid headlines about what will or will not give you cancer. Some have been of “genuine” public concern, such as the horse meat scandal.7 (Although even here the issue wasn’t the health risk, rather the concern was over honest labelling of food sources and the British distaste for eating cute animals). But they better reflect public anxieties than genuine approaches to epidemiological risk. Shocking headlines sell newspapers – and they wouldn’t if people weren’t willing to buy them. At the same time, the areas of doubt over BSE allowed fear to grow and provided a flame to be fanned. As public health issues have become more complicated, it has become more difficult to provide definitive answers and risk-free advice to citizens.
These events are still very recent, which can be problematic when trying to assess the historical impact of BSE. Already, however, some are beginning to question whether this was a real “crisis” of policy making and of government ineptitude, or a “crisis” in the media sense – i.e., it was a crisis because that was the label given to it by journalists reporting on events at the time. Ian Forbes, for example, has argued that the process was more a public ‘drama’, which said more about the government’s ability to communicate ‘risk and trust’ than it did scientific or political negligence.8 Sheila Jasanoff has also questioned the British public’s ‘trust’ in the politicians it elects, arguing that the UK puts more stock in the character of the person making the statement than the rationality or scientific strength of her statements.9 In other words, by whipping up the drama and casting doubt on the integrity and competence of those in charge, BSE could be framed as a fundamental failing of the British political system, and a direct assault on the health of the average citizen. Somewhat ironically, as James Meikle wrote in The Guardian, by 1996 the decision taken “in secret” to ban the feeding of spinal cords and brain matter to cows in the late 1980s had meant that cases of BSE were already in retreat.10As a historian, though, I’m also interested in the political shifts that we see in the crisis. They weren’t caused by it, but the political rhetoric employed by Harman in her response to Dorrell is fascinating, and a reflection on how the Labour Party had changed since the election of Margaret Thatcher. For CJD was, apparently, ‘of immense importance to consumers’. This suggests that people took risks with food and with their health as part of some sort of rational “choice”, expressed through market forces. In much the same way as obesity is linked to “choices” in diet and lifestyle. In this specific context, it appears that the government’s duty (through its scientific advisers) is to provide adequate guidance and information to allow people to make these rational choices. It was also a parent’s responsibility to make these choices on behalf of their children. This was another recurring theme in the late twentieth century, seen with vaccination crises and a growing anxiety over “bad parenting”.
The market was also important with relation to the meat industry. “Confidence” was crucial if agricultural workers and retailers were to survive. Somewhat ironically, the government had spent the previous years downplaying the tentative evidence of the BSE-vCJD risk precisely because they wanted to protect the agricultural sector.11 Presumably the argument was that if the science was forthrightly stated and well-explained, that the market would sort these issues out itself.This represents quite a shift, of course – a Labour shadow minister making neo-liberal appeals to the market as a way of protecting citizens and workers. New Labour had certainly come into force, and in these arguments we see a very particular way of viewing public health. At no point does she attack the power of the meat industry or the vested interests of the medical establishment, as might be expected from earlier generations.
The BSE crisis, then, represents a number of aspects of late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century Britain. The neo-liberalisation of health and the Labour Party. Growing mistrust of public health advice, fuelled by the tabloid press and scientific uncertainty amongst the lay population. It may not be the sexiest topic, but it is certainly one that resonates in the world I live in today. Meikle argues (although historians may need to test this) that governments are now far less willing to sit on potentially bad news, communicating risk to the public at an earlier stage than they would have done in the past.12 The diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis scandal would be a good example from the 1970s of when the government was more cautions, more worried about causing “panic” than providing clear information.13 By the time of the H1N1 “bird flu” drama, however, the government was accused of overreacting, given how few people died from it.14
That relationship between the public and authority remains tense. Mass cynicism is, unfortunately, a facet of political discourse in our times. For all these reasons, BSE is number 11 of 30.