Our (rejected) letter to the Times
Blaming ministers of agriculture for pronouncing and endorsing advice and example offered them by their own experts deflects criticisms from scientists own inability to communicate a responsible conflation of uncertainty and precautionary principles ("Remember CJD? It hasn’t gone away") (Comment, January 3, by Professor John Collinge). Evidence from the elaborate BSE Inquiry in the U.K indicates that the established scientists, vets, and experts on which Mr Gummer had to rely behaved during the height of the BSE disaster in their own practice, response, and advice to their families as he did; moreover, few if any of the witnesses called to the inquiry demurred at the condemnation, fomented by the Meat and Livestock Commission, of school governors and caterers who removed beef from choices of the children’s dinners.
Dr Collinge is a director at the Medical Research Council and rightly warns of persistent uncertainty and insidious factors in the BSE/CJD disaster. Professor John Krebs, FRS, of the new Foods Standards Agency has undertaken to advise on the possible and long-mooted crossing of BSE hitherto undetected into sheep and goats, and therefore of risk to consumers of the meat, milk , and by-products. Professor Krebs has uttered a warning, but rates the danger too remote for recommendations of dietary changes fro the public or himself (although he observed periods of abstinence from beef a decade ago so ago). So professor Collinge`s prognostications are incomplete without his sharing at least his gut-feelings, risk-assessments, and dietary intentions with his readers.
Intensive farming practice was a "key conclusion" of the BSE Inquiry in the development of the BSE epidemic. Distress in the dairy/beef/veal industry and the toll taken of the animals in it accounted for the origin and maintenance of the epidemic. The safety of all output of this industry, especially the milk, has not been clinched, and the stresses imposed on dairy herds continue unabated or even intensified with lameness, mastitis, and reproductive disorders as baleful symptoms. Prions, the infective particles of transmissible spongiform diseases, are much more robust than bacteria and viruses and their distribution, persistence, and contamination of farming commensals, the environment, wildlife, and water-supplies must engage the public’s demands for enlightenment and assessment from the scientific establishment. Recent perceptions of bovine- derived risk factor in milk supplies have led to quiet changes in pasteurization procedures formerly adequate o reduce the threat of TB but too weak for the new challenges and not nearly powerful enough to destroy prions.
Scientists and vets, like incautious politicians, lose respect by complicity in botched efforts at containing the corollaries of bad practices, rather than by weighing in with committed initiatives in fundamental reform and improvements. As consumers and therefore likely accomplices in some of the evils, they must profess a special responsibility in demonstrating the challenges and solutions.
And this responsibility and openness must expose the indifference to the suffering of the farm animals and to the ugliness of the experimentation in laboratories entailed in the continuing BSE/CJD epidemic. The scientific establishment’s efforts at relieving these abuses have been lamentable.