There is something about the time lag in the development of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease which makes it so worrying. If the incubation period of the disease is anything from five to 50 years, as some experts suggest, there could be an illness time bomb ticking away in any number of people who might have been affected by the newly established link with mad cow disease in British beef. It has been compared by one British government scientific adviser as the equivalent to a potential AIDS epidemic. The British Government, which for years adamantly denied any link between beef and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), has accepted a new form of the disease has been found in 10 people under the age of 42, seven of whom have died. Government experts admit the 'most likely' cause of these cases was exposure to mad cow disease before certain types of offal were banned from being used in foodstuffs in 1989. The disease was first confirmed in Britain in 1986 and is thought to have come from feeding the remains of sheep, suffering from the disease 'scrapie', to cattle in processed feeds. The debate on whether or not the disease could effectively jump from one species to another has continued since the late 80s, with some scientists believing there was evidence that farm workers handling cattle feed around that time were more prone to CJD. There is serious talk that all Britain's 11 million cattle may have to be destroyed if the disease is to be eradicated once and for all. This may be over-reacting. Britain's response to something which has so far claimed few lives is not strictly rational - after all, the world also heard this week that tuberculosis is again growing into one of mankind's biggest killers. But this new episode, which has led to more than half of all Britain's schools banning beef, a slump in its market price and bans on its sale across Europe, is not just a health scare story. It has enormous political implications too. It shows the Government needs to be terribly careful before its ministers go pontificating on something they know very little about. Five years ago, the-then agriculture minister John Gummer summoned his young daughter and together they were photographed tasting the dubious delights of a street-stall burger as he proclaimed there was no link between the two diseases. When the present Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, was asked if his children would continue eating beef this week, he dodged the question. There is no reason to suggest Mr Gummer and Mr Dorrell did not act in good faith. Doubtless had Mr Gummer called for a ban on beef five years ago before any real evidence of the animal-human link had been established, there would have been an enormous outcry from the farming industry and the media. But scientists such as microbiologist Professor Richard Lacey, who has warned of possible links between the disease in cows and humans for six years, have accused the Government of complacency, misusing scientific advice and putting the financial interests of farmers ahead of public health. 'This is one of the most disgraceful episodes in this country's history,' he said. Perhaps Professor Lacey is one of those who believe the Government, perhaps any government, never acts in good faith. The issue can also be clouded by single-issue lobbyists who seek to end meat eating on moral grounds and who may hide their real agenda. Nonetheless, the public would be justifiably unforgiving if, in an attempt to save the industry now, the Government carried on a cover-up knowing the time bomb was still ticking.