- Hopes for an early end to the beef-on-the-bone
ban have been dashed by the new Chief Medical Officer, who has warned ministers
that unboned beef could still pass "human BSE" to the public.
- Professor Liam Donaldson's report to
the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, will come as a serious blow to the
beef industry, which was struggling to regain its £500m export market
after the ending last November of the European Union's ban on British beef.
- Professor Donaldson's recommendation
also presents a test of strength for Mr Brown, who has the final say on
whether to continue the ban imposed 13 months ago. A decision by Mr Brown
to lift the ban would echo the worst behaviour of the Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food (Maff) in the BSE crisis earlier this decade, when it
frequently rode roughshod over Department of Health recommendations.
- Professor Donaldson, who was appointed
in September, warns that there is still a danger of maternal transmission
of BSE from cow to calf, and recommends that no immediate moves are made
to lift the ban on sales of beef on the bone. He concludes that although
the present risk from eating unboned beef is near zero, lifting the ban
would introduce a risk, which he could not countenance.
- In the past three years, 35 people in
Britain have died of "new variant" Creutzfeldt Jakob disease,
believed to have been caused by eating BSE- infected food. Most of the
victims have been under 40, and scientists suggest that the source of the
infection was food eaten before various offals were excluded from food
in 1990. Nobody knows how many people will eventually succumb to the fatal
- The beef-on-the-bone ban was introduced
in December 1997 after the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee
(Seac) reported that there was a very small risk of infection through the
nervous tissues, called dorsal root ganglia, in the spinal column of joints
of beef on the bone. But the committee did not directly recommend the ban:
"Among our recommendations was to do nothing," one member insisted
- Professor Donaldson's more cautious approach
has delighted Whitehall critics of Maff, which had threatened to shelve
the proposal for an independent Food Standards Agency until it was rescued
by the intervention of Tony Blair. Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House,
said last night that a draft Bill to set up the agency will be published
- The Bill will allow a flat charge of
about £2 a week to be raised for its running costs from 600,000 food
outlets. It should reach the statute book in July, around the time that
the BSE inquiry is due to deliver its findings.
- Professor Donaldson's report will be
seen as evidence that he will be a champion for consumers' safety against
pressure from the farming lobby, and that the Government is serious about
tackling the Maff influence over food safety. In future, he will report
to the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency.
- The Chief Medical Officer's latest advice
is not, however, based on any new scientific evidence. Seac met last weekbut
the continuation of the ban was not discussed. The committee last considered
the matter in December, after which Sir John Pattison, its chairman, said
any decision about continuing the ban should be "based on the science"
- which suggested that the initially small risk had shrunk further.
- Ministers have yet to agree a response
to Professor Donaldson's report, but senior Whitehall sources said Mr Brown
was likely to announce the beef-on-the-bone ban will stay for the foreseeable
- Though the number of BSE cases in Britain
is falling, it is still higher than anywhere else in Europe. In 1998, there
were 2,651 cases; the youngest animal to develop it was born in 1995 before
new safety measures on farm feed were introduced.