Elizabeth Smith died on 4th October, aged 23. She was a victim – the 162nd – to die from vCJD, most of whom died as a result of eating infected meat in the 1980s
1. Elizabeth Smith died on 4th October, aged 23. She was a victim – the 162nd – to die from vCJD, most of whom died as a result of eating infected meat in the 1980s. The BSE epidemic in dairy cows reached its peak in the early 1990s and John Major’s government tardily admitted a connexion between eating beef and vCJD in 1996. Elizabeth’s parents said that they discovered that she had vCJD on her 21st birthday.
2. Elizabeth had been studying at Birmingham University when CJD was diagnosed in March 2005. The symptoms were originally diagnosed as depression, but a likelier explanation for the numbness in her face was at that time multiple sclerosis (MS). Short-term memory loss developed, but she was able to continue at the university. However, by the time she was able to return home she had trouble swallowing and then she couldn’t swallow at all, so for her last 2 ½ years she was fitted with a gastro-tube. Elizabeth’s parents, Roger and Molly Smith, had to “watch the remorseless way that it killed her off”, in Molly’s words, echoed by Roger, who said that Elizabeth had been “clever, bright and intelligent… She wanted to do primary school teaching and had a place on a post-graduate training course at Birmingham… She had a very active life and loved being outdoors”.
3. Roger Smith is a retired vicar and a personal friend of John Gummer, who had been one of his parishioners. John Gummer is notorious as an Agriculture Minister pilloried in 1990 for trying to feed his daughter, Cordelia, a burger in front of TV cameras. “She shrank away from the burger, but he took a large bite himself, pronouncing it ‘absolutely delicious’” (The Times 12th October 2007). He is notorious for ridiculing parents and school governors who took beef off menus for children in their care and for dismissing vegetarianism and its advocates with contempt.
4. “I consider meat to be an essential part of the diet. The Bible tells us that we are masters of the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field and we very properly eath them”, pronounced John Gummer at a meeting of the International Meat Trade Association at Butcher’s Hall (which is not part of a slaughterhouse). He went on to label vegetarianism as “an unnatural practice”. David Clark, Labour shadow minister said that Mr Gummer had “let his religious bigotry overrule his common sense “and the Speaker, Bernard Wetherill, became involved when Tony Banks (MP, Labour) raised the Gummer remarks as a point of order, telling the Speaker that he was ‘the most eminent vegetarian in this House’” (Church Times, 11th May 1990). The Speaker said that he had written to Mr Gummer, quoting presumably from Romans 14, 19 to 21: Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things are indeed pure: but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth or is offended, or is made weak. The Epistle of St Paul, the Apostle to the Romans, on “how to treat a weak brother” has latterly been soundly pronounced by recent DEFRA Ministers advocating and demonstrating ways of eating less meat and milk as good policies for us all.
5. Our John, “the Catholic Tory MP, environmentalist and cow eater” is now involved in “Gummer’s unholy row with the humanists” according to a news item in yesterday’s Independent (16th October 2007) – World Food Day. The paper reports that ruder words than are attributed to the humanists have been said of John Gummer: “a Norwegian environment minister once called him a drittsekk” (which we translate as shitbag).
6. John Gummer has emerged recently as a co-author of a 500-word review of Defra-style policies rushed out for David Cameron as part of the stunt to pitch the country into turmoil of a sudden General Election. Nonetheless, the Smiths defended John Gummer, saying that “he had been unfairly treated in the press”, who lives nearby in Debenham, Sussex and was “unavailable for comment”; nor, as far as we can tell, could the Times, Guardian, or Independent elicit views from Cordelia, John Gummer’s famous daughter.
7. Roger Smith said that his daughter rarely ate burgers as a child and enjoyed a “healthy” diet: he put her average consumption at probably about 1% of the national average. If you live in the countryside, like Elizabeth did, there aren’t burger bars everywhere so she hardly ate any. She ate a perfectly normal and healthy diet. Sometimes she would have meat with a meal, sometimes she wouldn’t. It wasn’t one kind of meat either. It may be nothing to do with beef burgers. If people knew precisely where the disease came from, they would be able to stop it.” In further defence of John Gummer’s performance, Mr Smith said: “It didn’t change the way I viewed meat: it hanged the way I viewed the press”. This contrasts with the attitude of other relatives of victims of vCJD, whose view accords more with those of Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night:
Me thinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has; but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.
8. Elizabeth Smith was the 162nd person to die from vCJD. Although 5 victims have been described as vegetarians, most cases developed as a result of eating meat in the 1980s. The ratio of veggies to meat-eating consumers accords roughly to the proportion in the whole population, but these figures are open to various interpretations: conversions to vegetarianism may have occurred after consumption of contaminated beef or derivatives and the disease has also been transmitted by blood transfusion and infected surgical equipment. The possibility of transmission by dairy products seems unlikely now: early tests with calves suckled by cows with BSE scotched this explanation by surviving and no good evidence has been acquired after examination of human cases. However, genetic typing has yielded some clues. VEGA participated in the BSE Inquiry and subsequent meetings of researchers where more and more evidence is being assessed on prion diseases and transmissible encephalopathies.
9. The Vegetarian Society’s marches and demos at the annual Royal Smithfield Shows held at Earls Court in London were highly successful manifestations of objections to the meat and dairy industries, and VEGA Trustees were heavily involved with the staff in the running of these events during the 1970s and 1980s. BSE added to the live/deadstock trade’s ill repute and we had inklings that we were nearing the year when the Show would close. That triumphant occasion did not occur, however: the professionals in the Society’s Altrincham office withdrew their support and participation inopportunely. The VEGA campaigners made their point undaunted in the year of John Gummer’s crass exhibition at an agricultural show (probably the Royal) in mid-summer by waylaying him on his way round the stalls at the Earls Court Show with a Christmas present of a veggie burger for Cordelia. We received no proof that she received it or ate it, but the Royal Smithfield Shows in London were abandoned a year or two later. John Gummer was replaced at the MAFF and it fell to one of his successors to concede that the government accepted the connexion of vCJD with human consumption of meat from the dairy/beef/veal enterprises. The tardiness of this admission had restricted the power of testimony that could be used at the McLibel trial, but witnesses for the defence managed to get round this obstacle by citing the abundant and telling evidence of distress, dramatically illustrated on TV, in animals destined for slaughter in markets and premises used by McDonald’s.