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1996 - Mr Major’s Comments on British Beef

Below is the text of Mr Major’s comments on British beef, made in Turin on Friday 29th March 1996.


QUESTION:

[Mr Major was asked when he thought the beef ban would be lifted].

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think one can determine precisely when that will be. Clearly the swifter that can be done, the better, and we will certainly endeavour to ensure that it is done very speedily. But the first thing to do is to continue and conclude the discussions with the Commission about the proposals that now need to be taken. That discussion has gone rather well today so far, it will continue over the weekend. There will need to be an Agricultural Council Meeting I am sure on Monday. And then of course the Standing Veterinary Committee will have to meet to decide whether to recommend the lifting of the ban. I very much hope they will because until the ban is lifted it has a malign effect not only on the British beef industry, but in world markets it has a malign effect on the whole of the European beef industry as well.

QUESTION:

[Mr Major was asked if they would ultimately be forced to take the package of measures already rejected by the Treasury].

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it wasn’t vetoed by the Treasury, that is wholly wrong. I saw those stories, that is utterly and totally wrong. The Treasury vetoed nothing. What we did earlier in the week was follow the advice of the scientists, which was clear, and was that that sort of measure was not scientifically justified. What has happened subsequently of course is that this matter has moved, alas, because of collective hysteria, beyond science. Science said we should do what the government announced a week or so ago, but because of the hysteria that has developed the problem is now not just the safety of British beef and adhering to science, but how to restore confidence in the beef industry amongst the consumer. And that is the matter now under investigation.

QUESTION:

[Mr Major was asked with hindsight should he have been aware of the hysteria].

PRIME MINISTER:

Hindsight is a very valuable thing to have. By definition, it is not available at the time. And nobody could know how the hysteria would develop, how the matter would be reported, how people would react. And I think if we had taken that sort of action, which is very expensive action, at the outset, I suspect that people have put different sorts of questions to us. They would have said, “Why have you decided to go ahead with these sort of measures, against the advice of the scientists?”. And then they would have said, “What do you know that we don’t? Is there something hidden here?”, and the danger was, if we had gone beyond the scientific advice, that we might actually have created precisely the sort of problem that was subsequently created in any event by the hysteria I referred to. So there is a real difficulty in dealing with the public reaction to health scares, and the only secure basis upon which to stand is the scientific advice, and that of course is what we did.

QUESTION:

[Mr Major was asked if it was right to blame other European leaders].

PRIME MINISTER:

I spread the blame for the hysteria in a number of areas, but I don’t think it is at all productive to go back over that now. The reality is that the hysteria arose, and because the hysteria arose the problems exist in the beef industry not just here, but across Europe as well. So if Europe contributed, Europe also has the problems to face as a result of that. But that is not a productive way to look at it. What we now have to do is to say what can be done to restore confidence in British beef, and in European beef, and that is what is under active discussion at the moment.