- Contingency plans to prepare for the disastrous consequences
of a food panic if BSE is found in sheep are being drawn up by the government
and meat industry.
- Detailed advice on changing slaughterhouse and butchery
practices is being considered to help save the £385m a year sheepmeat
trade from collapse even though no evidence has yet been found that the
disease is occurring naturally in the 40m national flock.
- But officials of the food standards agency warned yesterday
that evidence "might emerge at any time in the next year or two from
studies under way."
- They said that present controls designed to prevent the
theoretical risk of human infection from mutton and lamb, introduced after
the crisis that hit beef in 1996, would not be enough if a dangerous BSE-like
agent was in sheep as well. Some even sugested it would be "very difficult"
to remove all risky material from meat before it went on sale because of
the way BSE has been shown to work in sheep in the laboratory. It spread
far more widely through the carcass than it did in cattle.
- The ministry of agriculture last night insisted that
its scientific advisers were keeping the problem under constant review.
"Any action, if BSE was to be found in sheep, would depend on evidence
at the time. We are not going to pre-empt what advice they would give,"
a spokeswoman said.
- David Croston, of the meat and livestock commission,
the government-backed industry body, confirmed it had been studying changes
but added: "Until science tells us what we should be removing, we
can't act. There is no strong evidence as of yet about what we should be
doing. If someone says we have to remove x, y and z, we know how to do
it and we will then advise the industry in an appropriate manner."
- It was difficult to quantify the impact on the industry
or the extent of changes that might be needed.
- Ian Gardiner, deputy director general of the National
Farmers' Union, said: "It would be entirely improper if experts in
such agencies did not develop contingency plans." But he too was keen
to stress that the risk of BSE appearing in sheep did not appear to have
increased in recent months.
- Some of the concerns were outlined in a "working
document" provided by agency leaders for discussion with consumer
groups, the meat industry, vets and families of victims of the human form
of BSE, known as vCJD, whose deaths have been linked to eating infected
material from cows before risky parts of the carcasses were banned from
food between 1989 and 1995.
- Scientific advisers to the government have so far decided
not to widen controls, although they have commissioned an assessment of
risk to public health.
- Heads of sheep are already banned from human consumption,
a move introduced in 1996 particularly to protect ethnic minority groups.
In addition, the tonsils and spleen of all sheep and the spinal cords of
sheep over a year old are banned.
- But intestines are still used for sausage casings, and
lymph tissue, also infected in laboratory experiments, is wide spread through
other meat on lambs and sheep.
- The main fear is that the presence of scrapie, a BSE-like
disease in sheep not known to have endangered human health, may be disguising
the BSE agent, which may have transferred to sheep through now-banned cannibalistic
feeding regimes in the 1980s. Scrapie-infected sheep brains are being tested
using mice to detect whether a BSE-like strain is evident. The agency document
suggested one might be identified "at any time".
- "Due to the limitations of existing studies and
available methods, failure to detect BSE in the national flock will not
be conclusive evidence that it is not present." The tone of the document
contrasts with that of scientists on Seac, the advisory committee for BSE
and its human form, which suggested last February that tests on sheep brains
up to then "do not have the characteristics associated with BSE".
- The agency hopes genetic breeding techniques will increase
sheep resistance to BSE and scrapie over the next 10-20 years. Meanwhile,
the agriculture ministry has contacted US counterparts who ordered the
destruction of sheep imported from Europe because they displayed signs
of a BSE-like disease. It appears satisfied that some were suffering from
a form of scrapie.
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