Paul Foot

Plague of the market

(29 June 1996)

From Socialist Worker, 29 June 1996.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 166–167.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The argument about BSE continues to be conducted at such a kindergarten level – ‘If you ban my beef, I won’t play ball with you’ – that everyone in high places ignores the question: how did we get into the mess in the first place?

There are lots of experts on European politics who can tell you how the balance of power is tipping in the commission, but haven’t got a clue what caused BSE in Britain in the mid-1980s or how to put a stop to it.

The discussions in parliament are particularly ill-informed and irrelevant. MPs ‘represent’ their constituencies by chauvinistic clamour about jobs lost in closed abattoirs, redundant butchers, desolated dairy farms, etc. It seems there is no one there to represent the fears of a population threatened by a terrifying, mystifying and murderous epidemic.

The Southwood Commission, which was set up soon after BSE started raging through British farms, concluded that it was all the fault of feeding meat to herbivorous cattle.

Real culprit

Though this process was introduced without a whisper of protest from Labour or Liberal parties, everyone now agrees it was disgraceful. Yet no one has been brought to book for it.

The Southwood Commission, and the huge parliamentary select committee inquiry which followed it, concluded that, once the new regulations about animal feed and removing the spines and heads of cattle were introduced, BSE would quickly vanish.

Not so. Seven years after the regulations, BSE continues to rage through British herds. It follows either that the cause had nothing to do with the feed, or that the regulations have not been properly enforced, or that BSE can be passed on from one generation of cattle to the next.

Once again, everyone accepts that in the first few years of the regulations they were scrupulously ignored at every stage. The regulations have now been tightened up. But still the BSE plague rushes on.

If the disease is inherited, or if its cause lies somewhere else in the food chain – in the rendering industry for instance, whose monopoly producer, Prosper Mulder, contributed so generously to the Tory party – the grim fact remains that no one knows whether even a mass slaughter of cattle will stop the disease.

Tory mafia

At the end of the 20th century, in the oldest industrial country in the world, where scientists can devise rockets to hit others travelling many times faster than the speed of sound, no one has a clue about the extent of or solution to a relatively straightforward cattle disease.

All the proposed answers to the BSE crisis avoid the real culprit: free enterprise. Whatever the scientific cause of BSE, the political and economic cause was the grotesque notion that regulations and restrictions in the public interest, even when that public interest protects people’s lives, are ‘bad for business’ and should therefore be curtailed.

This is the culture which led to the ‘freeing’ of wholly inappropriate and probably contaminated animal feed, to the lowering of temperatures and monopolisation in the rendering industry, and to the increasing confidence among the Tory mafia which runs farms, slaughterhouses and butchers that it can do what it likes.

If these farms and industries had been publicly owned and publicly controlled in the interests of the people who eat meat rather than the people who profit from it, the awful ravages of the BSE plague would have been impossible.

Last updated on 30 June 2014