Byline: RICHARD NORTH
TODAY in Florence, John Major will sit down and rubberstamp the UK's humiliating climbdown on the BSE crisis, by agreeing to slaughter a further 67,000 cattle without a firm commitment from the EU to end the worldwide export ban.
As he does, so he might reflect on the shortcomings of the one official who is most responsible for the BSE crisis; Mr Keith Meldrum, the Government's chief veterinary officer, is the man now widely acknowledged to have killed more cattle than foot-and-mouth disease.
Forget the politics for the moment. The main reason the EU has been so reluctant to lift the export ban has been its lack of confidence that Britain's BSE control measures have been properly enforced.
Europe knows, for instance, that last year official figures reveal that meat inspectors in 48 per cent of UK slaughter houses failed to police the removal of potentially infected offal. Meanwhile, other officials singularly failed to maintain standards in factories which rendered down the offal.
The man in overall charge of policing those standards is Mr Meldrum. Is it any surprise that he has not been able to convince his colleagues on the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee - which advises the Commission - that the epidemic has been contained?
But these are only the most recent of Mr Meldrum's failings. This week the BBC Panorama programme, in a searing indictment of his role, described him as `the face of official reassurance that there was nothing for us to worry about' over the risks from eating beef.
Many now believe that it was this `reassurance' which has destroyed a [pounds sterling]500 million-a-year export trade and wiped out domestic beef sales, committing the Government to destroying more than a million cattle, at a cost of over [pounds sterling]2.4 billion - all to restore consumer confidence that has been so recklessly endangered over the years by their top vet.
Right from the start, eight years ago, Meldrum got it wrong. Appointed in June 1988, it was only a few months later, in November, that he had to confront BSE, which was then seen as a new, terrifying disease which could spread to humans.
Although the scientific work had not been done to identify possible risks, Meldrum exuded confidence, claiming he did not believe there were any (health) implications for humans `at this time'.
Only a month later, Meldrum was facing another crisis over the connection between salmonella and eggs, in the aftermath of Edwina Currie's incautious words. In December 1988, he was having to explain why his Ministry had failed to take the necessary precautions to prevent salmonella gaining hold of the nation's egg supply.
Behind the scenes there was another Meldrum at work, an official who sanctioned a scientific report to an all-party Select Committee of MPs, playing down the egg scare and arguing that drastic action was unnecessary.
But within weeks of the report, the State Veterinary Service which he headed was implementing a slaughter programme, which ended up killing 3.5 million laying hens, costing more than [pounds sterling]5 million.
Privately, he agreed with poultry owners that the policy would not reduce salmonella food-poisoning. Yet the public face was telling the world that it was a necessary public health measure.
But in 1993, a government scientific committee confirmed that the slaughter programme was a fiasco, forcing the Government to climb down and abandon its policy.
Meldrum, the prime advocate and apologist of the policy, suffered a humiliation from which he was never to recover, earning into the bargain the undying hatred of many egg producers who had been appalled at his duplicity.
His department suffered a severe rebuke from the Parliamentary ombudsman who condemned the conduct of the slaughter as `maladministration, underlined three times'. …