Learning the Lessons of the BSE Crisis

  • Louise Cummings


By any standard, the BSE crisis was a most difficult period in the public health of the UK. This period saw a previously unknown TSE emerge in cattle and then transmit to humans, a scenario which by August 2009 had cost 164 people their lives in the UK and which has resulted in an unknown number of other people incubating variant CJD (vCJD). The economic damage caused by this disease has been considerable. In April 2000, the government estimated that by the end of the 2001/2002 financial year, the total net cost of the BSE crisis to the Exchequer would be £3.7 billion (BSE Inquiry Report, Volume 10: 1). Less quantifiable consequences have also stemmed from this crisis. Chief amongst them has been significant damage to the public’s ability to trust the pronouncements of government on matters of food safety and risk. The scientific community has suffered inestimable damage to its expertise and to its capacity to provide objective, consistent scientific advice to the public. With such serious consequences emanating from the BSE affair, it is incumbent on all those who were involved in this tragic episode to reflect on the events that took place and to consider how things could have been done better. Such a reflective exercise has, of course, been conducted by Lord Phillips and his inquiry team who examined all the events that took place during the BSE epidemic and drew a wide-ranging set of lessons from these events. A reflective purpose is also a central motivation of the current chapter. However, the focus of this reflection – scientific reasoning in contexts of uncertainty – is altogether narrower than that undertaken during the public inquiry into BSE. Moreover, the question of reasoning in contexts of uncertainty was omitted from Lord Phillips’ inquiry into BSE and has also been overlooked within the vast literature that has been written on the topic of BSE both before and after this inquiry was conducted.


Epistemic Condition Precautionary Principle Scientific Reasoning Reasoning Strategy Causal Claim 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Arts and HumanitiesNottingham Trent UniversityNottinghamUK

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