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Our mistrusted ally

Posted by Richard Wednesday, July 07, 2004

On 20 March 1996, Britain's health secretary Stephen Dorrell gave a statement to a packed House of Commons on the cattle disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

After years of denial and confusion about the risks of BSE to human health, what appeared to be a new strain of the related human disease, Creutzfeldt Jacobs Disease (CJD), had unusually appeared in a number of young people.

The announcement not only precipitated the mother and father of all food scares but led to intervention by the EU Commission to ban the exports of all British beef, not just to the EU but world wide. There followed the imposition on Britain by our EU partners a series of irrational and increasingly draconian controls.

This finally provoked the then prime minister John Major into branding his community colleagues a "bunch of shits" and launching what became known as the beef war – a campaign of non-co-operation in the Council, vetoing new legislative measures.

At the centre of all this was the French government, quick to blame the UK for causing this new disease, and then slow to remove the restrictions on British exports when the ban was finally lifted.

But, as Kim Willsher reported in The Sunday Telegraph, while all this was going on, a Mad Cow disease epidemic in France “went completely undetected and led to almost 50,000 severely infected animals entering the food chain

She reports that Researchers at France's official Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) say that "More than 300,000 cows contracted BSE in the past 13 years, 300 times more than the officially recorded cases".

In fact, those of us heavily involved in the issue at the time were fully aware that something was going on – but lack the evidence. But so persistent were the reports of large numbers of BSE in France, with officials burying the carcasses, that the disease became known unofficially as JCB disease.

Today Deutsche Welle is reporting that France stands on the brink of yet another health scandal, as it becomes evident that a major official cover-up has been in progress for over a decade. That is par for the course but, as Britain continues to revel in the description of the "awkward partner", one has to whether that description might be better applied to our "mistrusted ally".