Why I, as an Expert, Still Shun Beef; BY COLIN BLAKEMORE PROFESSOR OF PHYSIOLOGY, OXFORD UNIVERSITY

Article excerpt

MY DECISION to stop eating beef came as soon as I heard about BSE back in 1987. This was years before John Gummer, the then Agriculture Minister, was stuffing his daughter with beefburgers to make a posturing political point.

As a scientist I suspected, in those early days, that the risk of transmission from infected beef to humans was small.

But I made my own calculation of costs and benefits, and decided that the taste of beef wasn't important enough for me to take that risk. Over the following years, I thanked my lucky stars that I imposed my personal ban as the series of scares, categorical Government denials and increasing restrictions followed one after another.

In 1995, I joined the growing number of scientists expressing publicly their concern about the bland reassurances of government ministers.

Then, in March 1996, the link between BSE and variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease was announced.

What angers me even now is that, as a scientist, I had an advantage that everyone, in a democracy, should have shared.

Though not directly involved in this field, I had access to scientific papers and the knowledge to understand and assess them. I did my homework, and the alarm bells rang ever louder. That's how I made my decision.

The chance of my contracting the human version of mad cow disease - if there was such a thing - was minimal but real, I concluded.

I know scientists - at least as able and well informed as I was who took a different view.

They calculated, correctly, that they were in more danger of being killed crossing Oxford High Street than they were of dying from eating beef.

They decided they would live with the small degree of risk which I had found to be unacceptable.

That was their decision and I respected it.

BUT why should we as scientists have been in a privileged position denied to friends and neighbours who lacked our scientific training?

Every member of the public was entitled to know what was actually understood about BSE in those early days, and to have the new evidence as it emerged.

They should not have been told it was safe when the truth was that nobody really knew. I am disappointed, even shocked, by the culture of secrecy, revealed by the Phillips Report. …