Brought to book? After BSE, is the public prepared to pay the price for intense policing of the intricately complex meat chain? Mike Ingham suspects not Perhaps, with this week's death of a 14 year old girl from CJD, it would have been nice to have someone to blame for the BSE disaster. Someone to vilify. Following the publication of the huge Phillips report, there must surely be things to point the finger at. Well, a mutant protein called the prion started it and the error was compounded by a public administration distorted if not actually corrupt. For the tabloids, the bureaucrats' "culture of secrecy" and conspiracy against the public is an irresistible image. Certainly, at a more serious level, the analysis has pointed the finger at flaws in the administrative, regulatory, legal, political and constitutional systems of the UK. And, on the coal face, one could move on to blame the processors. Some were certainly responsible for allowing dangerous bits of cattle carcases into the human food chain long after regulations were introduced demanding changes to technical methods. This was known by MAFF, ministers, the MLC and consumer groups years before Lord Phillips started probing. Nevertheless the processors have been keen to play the victim, as have the slaughterers, packers and retailers. Traders were hit by the costly imposition of an array of new hygiene regulations and inspection procedures. This new trading environment is unfair, they say, as they in their turn hit out at the way the livestock producers are protected. Take the billions spent in compensating farmers through the Over Thirty Month Scheme, the programme for heavily subsidised destruction of cattle. In other words, those responsible for the cattle posing a threat to the public are financially protected, and the health of the consumers is protected, more or less, while the cost of all the safeguards is borne by the meat industry. Processors point to the farmers and ask how many were knowingly selling BSE-afflicted cattle to slaughterhouses when the beasts were legally barred from the food market, or using livestock feed containing the mashed up remnants of ruminants. Farmers claim they could never know a cow was carrying BSE at the time of sale and certainly would not have sold it on if they did. Why, then, was there a sudden increase in the number of confirmed cases in 1990, immediately after the government increased the compensation payment from 50% to 100% of market value? Retailers, too, cannot escape some suspicion. Even today, believes Food Standards Agency chairman Sir John Krebs, small amounts of beef from BSE-infected cattle are finding their way to consumers, and there is certainly an illicit trade in meat from older cows. These allegations reflect the conundrum frustrating policymakers, especially as most of the accusations are at least partly true. The meat business comprises such a profusion of activities by so many people, it would be impossible for it to be supervised completely by any conceivable organisation. But there is also the more profound matter of conflict and compromise. In the retail store and at the trading desk the dominant influence on daily working life is supposed to be competition. The word competition is almost a synonym for conflict. On the other hand, practical business dealings usually involve some degree of bargaining, and bargaining is a process of incremental compromise. A banal observation, perhaps, but much of the criticism levelled at MAFF for years centred on the ministry's alleged conflicts of interest, and the accusation it habitually favoured the interests of livestock producers over those of consumers. A similar charge was laid against the MLC, that organisation allegedly looking after butchers, processors and farmers but without heeding its duty to consumers. As public debate moves on to anticipate the next food safety crisis, a form of BSE in sheep perhaps, the widespread assumption is a need for institutional reform to eradicate the potential for conflict or compromise from the bodies responsible for protecting the public. Well, we now have the FSA and the applauded performance of the sharply focused agency in its first few months vindicates this approach. But what about the industry itself? The simplistic response is to claim safety must be the absolute priority. As the FSA's approach so far demonstrates, that is possible for a public sector agency with a clearly defined remit, although one reason for the respect accorded Krebs is his surprising willingness to acknowledge commercial reality and consumer preference. Food safety is not the only objective of shoppers. Quality, variety, convenience and price are considerations. Beef consumers have proved in the past that they do not see a simple trade off between price and safety. That in turn means part of the safety guarantee provision must remain in a commercial environment where conflict and compromise are not merely tolerated but recognised as essential. Absolute food safety would have an infinite cost. Society would not and could not pay. {{NEWS }}