Victims of the human form of 'mad cow' disease should be paid compensation for their suffering, a former health minister has told the BSE inquiry.

Former junior health minister Edwina Currie said the victims of 'this terrible tragedy' had become ill or died 'partly because of the actions of government ministers'.

The state had 'compensated people in similar circumstances before', she added, and the inquiry should 'at some stage turn its mind to compensation for the individuals concerned'.

Thirty-one people have now died of new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE thought to have been transmitted through eating infected meat products.

Mrs Currie said public health 'was not a high priority' for the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food in the late 1980s when BSE first emerged.

She said ministers and officials at the Department of Health realised 'that the state of an animal when it went into the food chain could have a direct effect on the person who ate it' because of dealing with conditions such as

E coli infection.

Mrs Currie said that during her time in office from 1986 to 1988 she had repeatedly requested meetings with her opposite junior ministers at MAFF to discuss food safety 'but nothing happened'.

Officials at the DoH would 'encounter obstruction' when they tried to raise the same issues, she added.

In previously submitted written evidence, Mrs Currie attacked MAFF for its 'lack of respect for the overriding public health interest' which 'led to a catastrophic outcome'. The DoH's experience of dealing with AIDS and HIV could have been the 'model' for handling the BSE crisis, she said.

Developing a test for new- variant CJD in living people or BSE in live cows, similar to the test available for HIV, should have been 'a priority'.

If MAFF had said 'we have to have a test' in 1986 or 1987, 'it would have been possible to take appropriate action much more quickly'.

The ex-minister also had a dig at former agriculture minister John Gummer's famous publicity stunt at the height of the BSE crisis. 'I am not sure I would have force-fed hamburgers to my children,' she said.

Mrs Currie defended the record of health ministers during her time in office, saying ministers responded 'appropriately' to the threat from BSE, setting up an expert committee under Professor Richard Southwood to advise on health risks, and ensuring that vaccines and medicines from bovine sources were replaced with equivalent preparations.