Plan Drawn Up To Avert
Food Panic If BSE
Found In Sheep
By James Meikle - The Guardian
Special Report: What's Wrong With Our Food?
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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