BSE, Risk and the Communication of Uncertainty: A Review of Lord Phillips' Report from the BSE Inquiry (UK). (Review Essay/Revue Critique)
Jones, Kevin E., Canadian Journal of Sociology
Since the first recognized cases of BSE (1) (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) were identified in the UK during the late 1980s, the history of 'mad cow' disease, as it is popularly known, has been dominated by controversy, scandal and loss. Twenty years after its story began, the aftershocks of a veterinary disease which led to the deaths of almost one hundred UK citizens, culled millions of cattle and scarred the national beef industry, continue to pervade British society. It is within this context that Lord Phillips released his report from the BSE Inquiry to the British House of Commons in October 2000. Tasked with reviewing the emergence and identification of BSE and vCJD in the UK, along with the adequacy of the actions taken by the Government in response to the disease, Lord Phillips has produced a report of massive length. (2) Consisting of 16 volumes, the report covers a wide range of issues. These include the consequences of BSE for human and animal health, the disease's impact on the agricultural in dustry and the national economy, and an evaluation of the science and industrial processes in relation to BSE and vCJD.
It is of no surprise that BSE has attracted a great deal of academic attention in the social sciences, and although the disease is seldom treated in depth, it is often held up as exemplifying current trends in social theory. This is no truer than in the case of European sociology's attraction to theories of the so-called 'risk society'. However, what is more important, is that BSE has become a locus around which the language of social theory -- 'risk' and 'uncertainty' in this case -- has melded with public discussions concerning the ability of society to contend with relentless scientific and technological innovation (Rose, 2000: P. 63).
BSE and the Risk Society
Echoing one of the key tenets of theories of the risk society, Lord Phillips indicates that at the "heart" of the BSE story is the ability of society to contend with both known and unknown hazards (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. xvii-xviii). In other words, the emphasis is placed on the ability of science, industry and government to cope with routine uncertainty. An awareness of the fallibility and inconclusiveness of science, the recognition that hazards are the unpredictable consequence of human processes, and a loss of faith in the capacity of traditional institutions to secure society from these risks are all implicated in the Phillips Report. The inquiry's treatment of these components of uncertainty is specifically focussed around three core themes: i) the cause of BSE and the persistent spread of the disease amongst cattle, ii) the transmission of BSE to humans, and iii) the Government's failure to communicate risk and uncertainty to the public.
The Cause and Spread of BSE in Cattle
Although BSE was first identified in 1986, certainty about the cause of the disease and why it suddenly developed in cattle has eluded science. Originally thought to be linked to scrapie -- a more common form of TSE (3) found in sheep -- the Phillips Report now cites scientific evidence that demonstrates that this link does not exist. Instead, the report categorizes the cause of BSE as "unknown", and acknowledges that TSEs may develop sporadically (randomly and without explanation) in species in which they have not been identified previously (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 249-250). (4)
However, if the cause of BSE is recognized as uncertain, or potentially even unknowable, the report is far more certain in ascribing a cause to the persistent and widespread transmission of the disease throughout the UK beef industry. This epidemic side of the BSE story, Lord Phillips suggests, can be directly attributed to human innovation and industrial processes. Uncertainty, in this sense, is not understood solely as a limitation of knowledge, but as the source of potential hazards, or risks, which are the yet unknown products of our own making. BSE is conceived as the unavoidable outcome of the uncertainties posed by the increased levels of social complexity which are often attributed to the progress of modernity:
In a primitive society, the major hazards are those posed by nature. In a complex modem society the acts of individuals or corporate bodies may also involve serious hazards to other members of society (Phillips et at., 2000a: p.31).
In this light, the cause of the BSE epidemic is identified as the result of intensive farming practices, industrial models of agricultural production, and more specifically, the use of high protein animal feeds containing meat and bone meal derived from infected cattle. This practice, utilized without any regulation for several decades, constituted what the Phillips Report repeatedly refers to as a "recipe for disaster" (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. x vii).
Although this pathway of infection was established early in the BSE story, the Phillips Report is critical of the mistakes which were made in ascertaining the extent of the problem as well as the Government's resolve in addressing it. In particular, these criticisms are levelled against the Government's over reliance on the initial implementation of a ban on the use of recycled ruminant (sheep & cattle) proteins in ruminant feed in 1988. At the heart of the problem with the ban, was the assumption that a relatively large amount of infected material needed to be consumed by a cow in order to contract the infection. Consequently, the ban failed to address the spread of BSE which was occurring in feed lots as a result of the cross-contamination of cattle feed with pig and poultry feeds which were still being produced with ruminant proteins. At the time cross-contamination was perceived as only constituting a minuscule risk. In effect, the Government made regulatory decisions on the basis of unproven beliefs abou t the nature of the disease, without acknowledging the uncertainty of these assumptions (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. xxi-xxii, p.18, p. 255).
Furthermore, when responses to the problem of cross-contamination were put in place in 1990 (e.g. a ban on the use of specified bovine offal in all animal feeds), the report criticizes the government for failing to enforce these measures. These failings are attributed to the lack of a clear mandate and structure with which to inspect slaughterhouses and ensure that prescribed industrial processes (5) were being followed. However, more broadly, the report states that these problems stemmed from a general lack of appreciation of the importance of the measures being prescribed. It was not until almost a decade after the source of the BSE epidemic had been identified that the Government finally introduced further measures to shore up these problems and contain the transmission of BSE (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. xxi-xxii, p.18, p. 255). In summary, the Government's persistent failure to contend with the risk of an epidemic stems directly from their inability, or lack of will, to make the decisions necessary to st op the transmission of BSE within a context of uncertainty.
The Transmission of BSE to Humans as vCJD
The Government's ability to contend with uncertainty and risk also dominates the report's treatment of the link between BSE and vCJD. Like the above discussion of the Government's handling of the BSE epidemic, the Phillips Report is critical of the Government's lack of serious engagement with the human health risks posed by BSE and their tendency to rely on false certainties in guiding their response.
At the centre of these critiques is the Government's dependence on the preliminary findings of a working party put in place in 1988 to specifically advise the Government of the human health risks presented by BSE. Chaired by Sir Richard Southwood, the working party made several early recommendations to attempt and guard against any risks to human safety. These advisements included the compulsory slaughter and destruction of all cattle showing infection and a later ban on the use of certain 'specified offal' in human food (e.g. brain and spinal chord). However, although implemented, the importance of these actions was undermined by the working party's estimation that the transmission of BSE to humans, although possible, was only remotely so (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 50-55). Following suit, the Government forged a rigid position which argued that no further precautions were needed than those already in place, and often cited the Southwood Report as constituting a scientific appraisal of the minimal nature of the risks BSE posed for humans.
The Government fervently held this line until 1996 when they were forced to report that a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacobs Disease (vCJD) identified in young people appeared to be related to BSE. Facing intense public outrage, the Government implemented strong new measures which they hoped would reassure the public about the potential risks they faced. This included a ban on the use of all cattle over the age of 30 months in both animal and human food, and a mass culling of British cattle herds. Between March 1996 and the end of 1999, the BSE Inquiry reports that more than 3.3 million cattle were prematurely slaughtered (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. 21).
Yet, despite the success of these measures in halting the spread of the disease, the report admits that the full human consequences of the disease are still "unknown". At present the incubation period of vCJD is still undetermined and as such, there is no way to predict how many more people will die of the disease as a result of eating tainted beef during the last decade (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 258-259).
Trust as a Casualty of BSE
As a result of the inability to contend with the uncertainty surrounding the cause of BSE, its transmission amongst cattle and the translation of BSE into vCJD, public trust in government, science and industry was severely challenged. In other words, BSE and the inability to contend with techno-scientific uncertainty translated into a breakdown in relations between these institutions and the broader public. As the Phillips Report notes, "trust" became another casualty of the BSE story (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. xviii).
In particular, although without wishing to fault individuals, Lord Phillips is highly critical of what he describes as the undertaking of a "campaign of reassurance" in the communication of risk to the public (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. 261). Beef, the British public was routinely assured, was not only safe, but good for you as well. (6) This approach was guided by a pervasive fear that an anxious and potentially hysterical public would respond irrationally to the risks posed by BSE and overreact by ceasing to purchase UK meat products. The report does not propose that there was an attempt to cover up the hazards posed by BSE in order to protect the beef industry, as has been suggested by more cynical observers of the BSE story. Instead Lord Phillips documents that scientists, government officials and industry representatives, when faced with uncertainty about the disease and intense public pressure, routinely resorted to more familiar statements of certainty and reassurance (Phillips et al., 2000a: 232-235). As one witness testified to the inquiry:
Given the strength of public debate on the matter at the time one was aware of slightly leaning into the wind. You could not just stand upright and give a totally impartial view of what was the situation. There was a strong danger of being misinterpreted one way or the other, and we tended to make more reassuring sounding statements than might ideally have been said (Phillips, 2000a: p.265).
"Lessons Learned" - Risk Management and Communicating Uncertainty
Through the above critiques an overarching message, or 'lesson to be learned', emerges from the Phillips report. Whether discussing the fallibility of science, the hazards produced by modern society, or the ability of contemporary institutions to provide for the security of their citizens, the priority outlined in the Phillips report is to be better prepared to contend with risk and uncertainty. Two points stand out as of particular relevance for this discussion of BSE and permeate the majority of the report's findings. The first, makes the identification and management of risk the priority in contending with future uncertainties. The second, pertains to the need to be able to openly and effectively communicate risk and uncertainty to the public.
At the basis of the first of these priorities, what I refer to as the management of risk, is the basic insight that: "Uncertainty can justify action" (Phillips et al., 2000a: p.254). The report is emphatic that social institutions can no longer remain complacent about the potential risks associated with the application of modem science and technology, even though these risks may often appear remote. Instead, science, government and industry must each ensure that all necessary precautions are taken to both identify and contend with hazard regardless of their assumed probabilities.
Thus, although lauding the individuals who first identified BSE and linked the disease to human health risks, the report strongly asserts that organizational improvements are still needed to better identify future sources of risk to British society. On one hand this means increasing cooperation between government and industry in order to improve the nation's animal disease surveillance systems (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 251-252). On the other hand, it also means redressing deficiencies in the standards and availability of the scientific expertise needed to expeditiously recognize and track potentially dangerous veterinary diseases (7) (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. 225).
The Phillips report, furthermore, suggests that contending with uncertainty also means ameliorating the way in which governments, science and industry work together to address risks once they have been identified. Specifically, the report asserts that communication and cooperation between these institutions must be improved if effective and timely actions are to be taken in the future. This includes a reevaluation of relations within government, between government and science and between government and industry.
Internally, the Phillips report foregrounds the need to promote greater intergovernmental communication and cooperation. This necessity is highlighted by the failure of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (MAFF) and the Department of Health to work together to recognize that BSE was not exclusively a veterinary disease, but a threat to human health as well (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. xxx, pp. 235-236). Likewise, the report urges the Government to reevaluate its use of scientific expertise. Risk management, in this context, means better managing science and is to be accomplished by better coordinating and funding scientific research, and ensuring that government is able to access appropriate and skilled sources of scientific expertise. Particular attention is paid to the Government's misuse and over reliance on expert committees, such as the Southwood Party, throughout the extent of the BSE story. The report argues that if it is necessary to resort to the advice of external experts, then particula r care must be paid to ensure that not only their conclusions are clearly articulated to government, but their limitations in knowledge and assessments of risk as well. Furthermore, governments must avoid the temptation to consider the conclusions of expert committees as determinative of policy (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 238-241). Finally, in response to growing concerns about the relationship between government and industry, the report asserts that governments must provide and enforce clear industrial regulations aimed at the prevention and treatment of risk. These regulations, the report argues, must not only address those risks considered to be "reasonably probable", but also address those that are considered only "mere possibilities" (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 266-272).
In response to the conspicuous misrepresentation of risk which characterized the BSE story, the Phillips report makes it clear that providing security from risk also entails improving communication between social institutions and the public. Governments, scientific experts and industry representatives are all urged to clearly communicate uncertainty and potential risks to the public. This includes the clear conveyance of the incomplete nature of knowledge upon which decisions about the probability of risk are being made, as well as the constraints these gaps imply for the ability of social institutions to secure society from these hazards. As a prerequisite to building this foundation of openness, the report clearly asserts that government, science and industry must first appreciate that the public will react rationally when provided an honest appraisal of risk and uncertainty. In effect, the report is impelling each of these institutions to make their practices more transparent and to ensure that in the futu re that the importance of precautionary measures will not be played down on the grounds that the risks they address are unproved. The goal of this openness is to regenerate public confidence in the institutions which are deemed to provide security and well-being to society.
Limitations and Failings of the BSE Inquiry
Although the BSE Inquiry can be congratulated for incorporating an understanding of risk and uncertainty into its investigation of the circumstances surrounding BSE, its successes are limited by its failure to acknowledge the broader implications of these terms. As a consequence, the report has socially decontextualized risk and uncertainty and in doing so has upheld the status quo instead of addressing the social conditions at the middle of the BSE story.
Objectifying Risk and Fetishizing Process
The first error the BSE inquiry makes in adopting the idea of risk, is by treating it as an inevitable object, or certainty. As such, the report distances an understanding of the risks posed by BSE from the social processes out of which they arose. In other words, risk management strategies, such as those mentioned above, prioritize the management of the consequences of uncertainty and disregard the potential for reducing the a priori social production of risk.
As a result, the Phillips Report fetishizes the minute technological, scientific and industrial processes as the sources of objectified risks. For example, although the report clearly identifies industrial agricultural and intensive livestock farming methods as the cause of the BSE epidemic, one is hard pressed to find a discussion of these processes themselves. Instead, the report focusses its attention on the particularities of the processes involved in the slaughter, rendering and utilization of an animal (Phillips et al., 2000c). At its most mundane points, the questions posed by the inquiry concerning the transmission of BSE are reduced to an interrogation of the different methods of splitting a carcass, removing offal or deboning a skull (Phillips et al., 2000c). As a result, the report has ignored obvious questions about the social merits of these processes. Stated differently, if the BSE epidemic was caused by industrial agriculture and intensive livestock farming, as suggested by the Phillips report, should attention not be granted to the employment of these practices and not just the processes by which they operate?
It is perhaps not surprising, due to the nature of the inquiry process, that the report does not address these broader social concerns, but it serves to highlight the limited understanding of risk with which the Government continues to operate. For most observers of BSE, its story was not limited to a discussion of the disease itself, but also related to exoteric reflections about the condition of contemporary British society. For example, concerns raised over the condition of the national food supply were not limited to the contamination of beef by BSE alone, but also included public debates over developments in genetic engineering and the production of genetically modified foods. Likewise, public discussions of the complicity of science in the development and handling of BSE were not isolated to discussions of the disease itself. Instead, BSE invoked wider concerns about the increasing encroachment of industry into science and government, and most broadly, questioned the objectivity and authority granted to science and government as a whole. (8) Similarly, vegetarianism, the ethical treatment of animals, organic farming and the plight of rural Britain were all issues which the public linked to BSE, and which do not take up any significant space in the thousands of pages which comprise the Phillips Report.
It is worth noting that at the time this review is being written, that the European agricultural industry is again under intense public scrutiny. The current outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the UK and the recent discovery of BSE in France and Germany echoes many of the same issues raised in the UK during the last decade. Once again government, industry and scientific representatives continue to speak about the need to manage risk, while the public continues to speak about the broader social context in which these risks are inseparably bound.
Democratizing Government - Science - Citizen Relations
If, as I have argued, the Phillips Report has failed to recognize the broader social context in which BSE was situated, then the same can be said for the report's approach to the communication of risk and uncertainty to the public. Although the report takes a positive step forward in promoting an open and transparent model of communication, it is limited by the adoption of conservative assumptions about the nature of knowledge and expertise. In particular, the report's failings can be traced to the separation of these terms from a clear understanding of the social application of power which characterizes relations between government, science and the public. In doing so, the Report not only fails to challenge the way we understand citizen-science relations, but risks upholding the same values which gave rise to the failures of communications endemic to the BSE crisis.
At the centre of the Phillips Report's approach to the communication of risk and uncertainty is an assumption that trust can be generated by simply improving communicative processes and developing an awareness of the rationality of the public at large. However, the Phillips Report continues to cast science as the exclusive procurer of knowledge, while at the same time upholding a perception of the public as passive receivers. As a consequence of this monological approach to communication, the public's failure to understand science and the 'true' nature of risk become the primary issue in the relationship between scientific experts and the public. Thus, although the report recognizes that the public can be rational, they are not recognized as significant sources of knowledge themselves. Instead, the public are derogated as tabula rasa -- blank slates (Irwin et al., 1996: p.48; Michael, 1996: p.109).
Consequently, these unidirectional assumptions about the relationship between experts and publics, have isolated the majority of British citizens from the ability to participate in the way in which society responds to risk and uncertainty. Although the report does states that: "a lay member can play a valuable role on an expert committee" (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. 262), the contextual experience and knowledge which the public might bring to the table are for the most part ignored. For example, the initial failure of the Government's ban on the inclusion of certain specified offal in animal food products is representative of their wider failure to consider the importance of contextual knowledge. Scientists and government officials knew that in order to stop the infection of other animals that it was necessary to remove those parts of the animal considered most likely to contain the infected material. Taken as is the ban would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter. However, to place the ban in contex t requires that we consider it relation to the messy and chaotic character of the abattoirs in which the ban was to be put in practice (Irwin, 1995: p. 116; see also Phillips et al., 2000c). In other words, the government's failed to reflexively consider the limitations of their expert knowledge and were unable to acknowledge the potential contributions of contextual forms of knowledge. As a consequence, the spread of BSE continued largely unhindered for another two years.
The general disinterest the Phillips Report displays in promoting the importance of non-expert knowledge causes the report to make a common mistake. Lord Phillips assumes that a greater understanding of government sponsored scientific research will lead to the greater public acceptance of the uncertain processes through which risk is derived and managed. The potential for fostering trust through the promotion of public participation in the regulatory processes and the democratization of expertise more generally is largely ignored. If, as a society, we wish to be better able to contend with uncertainty and the potential fore risk, then we need to begin to foster inclusiveness, both in how we define and how we structure knowledge and expertise (Irwin, 1995).
To conclude, Lord Phillips' report from the BSE inquiry can be seen in two lights. First, it takes a step in the right direction by acknowledging the need for society to address how we approach the production, management and communication of routine uncertainty and risk. However, the report also falls far short of producing a more radical comment on society's ability to contend with the yet unknown consequences of our own actions. On one hand the report lacked the social scope to consider BSE outside of technological, scientific and industrial process. It further missed the opportunity to envision how the democratic inclusion of alternative forms of knowledge could contribute to how society is able to respond to situations, such as those proposed by BSE. Therefore, it remains that if we are to truly learn from the mistakes made during the BSE story, then it is essential that we seek to provide a stronger social foundation to the understanding of risk and uncertainty.
Kevin E. Jones is a doctoral student at the Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology (CRICT) at Brunel University in London (UK). His current research concentrates on the role of biotechnological development in shaping the ways we perceive and relate to nature and environment. Other interests include the production of corporate science, the formation of environmental movements and cultural conceptions of wilderness.
(1.) BSE is a disease in cattle which causes the rapid degeneration of brain cells in the victim. It is recognized by symptoms including extreme nervousness, hyper-sensitivity to touch and loss of balance. The disease is now strongly linked to the development of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacobs Disease (vCJD) in humans. vCJD, is also a neuro-degenerative disease and, like BSE, is invariably fatal (Ridley & Baker, 1998: p. 151).
(2.) This review will focus on Volume One of the Report which provides an overall summary of the BSE Inquiry's findings and conclusions (Phillips et al., 2000a).
(3.) Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy -- the category of neuro-degenerative diseases which includes BSE, Scrapie and CJD.
(4.) Despite making this acknowledgement of uncertainty, the report would appear to argue that the limitations of science are only temporary. In particular, the report turns to recent developments in molecular biology as holding the key to providing the sense of scientific certainty which was so conspicuously absent during the BSE story. Termed the "rogue prion" hypothesis (Ridley & Baker, 1998; see also Prusiner, 1999), it is argued that TSEs result from the presence of "prions" (transmitted or inherited) which force benign molecules to change their shape, thus converting normal proteins into dangerous ones. This thesis challenges many of the taken for granted assumptions about molecular biology, including the primacy of genetic material, such as DNA & RNA. in the transmission of diseases (Prussiner. 1995: p.53 I). Irrespective of this controversy, the report continues to look to the promise of factuality and the progress of science as the primary tools in contending with BSE and uncertainties of knowledge i n the future (Phillips et al., 2000b).
(5.) These include methods of clearly identifying potentially infectious offal in the slaughterhouse (demarcated with dye) and ensuring their separation from the further division and rendering of the animal.
(6.) One of the images which stands out as representative of this approach is that of former agriculture minister John Gummer feeding his daughter a beef burger on national television as part of a much maligned attempt to quell public "hysteria" over BSE. For a further discussion of BSE and the language of hysteria which characterized the Governments approach to the disease please refer to the following article by Hodge and Woog (1999).
(7.) Specifically the report places an emphasis on the need to train and employ more qualified veterinary epidemiologists.
(8.) A recent article in The Guardian titled "Fallibility in a white coat" makes the provocative statement that Agovernment grants and private sector research alike tie in the scientist to specific aims. Scientists are less free spirits than intellectual castrati singing for their table d'hote supper (Williams, 2001).
Hodge, Bob and Robert Woog
"Beyond Reason in Hysteria: Toward a Postmodern Model of Communication and Control in Science". Social Semiotics 9(3): 375-392.
Irwin, Alan, Alison Dale and Denis Smith
"Science and Hell's Kitchen: The Local Understanding of Hazard Issues" pp. 47-64 in A. Irwin and B. Wynne (eds.) Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development. London: Routledge.
"Ignoring Science: Discourses of Ignorance in the Public Understanding of Science" pp. 107-125 in A. Irwin and B. Wynne (eds.) Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Phillips (Lord of Worth Matravers), June Bridgeman and Malcolm Ferguson-Smith
The BSE Inquiry -- Volume 1, Findings and Conclusions. London: The Stationary Office.
The BSE Inquiry -- Volume 2, Science. London: The Stationary Office
The BSE Inquiry -- Volume 13. Industry Processes and Controls. London: The Stationary Office
Prusiner, Stanley B.
Prion Biology and Diseases. Cold Spring Harbor NY: CSHL Press.
"The Prion Diseases" Scientific American 272(1): pp. 530-531.
Ridley, Rosalind M. and Harry F. Baker
Fatal Protein, the Story of CJD, BSE and Other Prion Diseases. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
"Risk, Trust and Scepticism and the Age of New Genetics" pp.63-77 in B. Adams, U. Beck, J. Van Loon (eds.) The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory. London: Sage.…
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Publication information: Article title: BSE, Risk and the Communication of Uncertainty: A Review of Lord Phillips' Report from the BSE Inquiry (UK). (Review Essay/Revue Critique). Contributors: Jones, Kevin E. - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of Sociology. Volume: 26. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2001. Page number: 655+. © 1997 Canadian Journal of Sociology. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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