One of the key government officials in Britain's recent crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been forced out of his job. The move came days after the completion of an official inquiry that is expected to be highly critical of the way in which the crisis was handled.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) announced on Monday the departure of Richard Packer, its top civil servant. Packer was at the centre of events in March 1996 surrounding the announcement of evidence that BSE might be responsible for a new form of Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans (see Nature 380, 273; 1996).
Ironically, Packer's departure coincides with new evidence — published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team of US and UK researchers — strengthening the likelihood that new-variant CJD is caused by the same agent as that responsible for BSE in cattle.
This conclusion is based on the finding that mice injected with BSE-infected tissue develop almost identical symptoms to those of humans who develop the new-variant CJD, and over the same incubation period.
The study was conducted by researchers in the University of California, San Francisco, Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, whose director, Stanley B. Prusiner, won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for discovering that spongiform encephalopathies were caused by prions. The new study used human brain tissue supplied by researchers at the National CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh.
Packer — who describes his recreation in Who's Who as “living intensely” — is widely known as a highly skilful, respected and, in some quarters, feared civil servant. He has a reputation for staunchly defending the interests of his ministry (and Britain's agricultural community), and standing up to ministers when he felt this necessary.
Unlike most of his predecessors, he did not graduate from Oxford or Cambridge, but joined the ministry after postgraduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Manchester in 1967.
His departure is being described by government officials as a reflection of their desire to ‘modernize’ the civil service, bringing it more closely in line with the strategic priorities of the Labour government.
But some say that Packer's position has been weakened by the evidence that has emerged over the past two years of the BSE inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Phillips.
Questioning Packer on his earlier evidence during a cross-examination this month, for example, Phillips suggested that conclusions about a possible CJD/BSE link reached by the Spongiform Encephalitis Advisory Committee in February 1996 had not been treated with sufficient urgency.
However, Phillips also expressed concern that, when it become clear that the news had major implications both for public health and for the UK beef industry, “practical decisions were taken in a great rush”.
Packer has strongly defended his role in the crisis. He is reported in The Times to have told colleagues that he was only a “bit player”, and that “the inquiry will show that my actions have been close to exemplary”.
His departure after seven years in the top post at MAFF is likely to have major implications for the future of the ministry itself. Packer has long been a strong opponent of attempts to locate responsibility for food safety in a separate government department.
Such a move, he feared, could reduce what was until recently one of the most powerful ministries in Whitehall to little more than a Department of Rural Affairs. His departure makes that more likely.