UK Scientists Will Try
To Prove 'Mad Cow' Comes
From The Soil - Not Meat
LONDON (AFP) - Two scientists have been granted government funds to attempt to prove that the human form of mad cow disease is contracted from soil, not from eating beef, the British agriculture ministry said Tuesday.
The pair believe that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is caused by a common microbe found in muddy water, sewage and human skin, and that the microbe is the link between BSE and its human equivalent, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD).
The two scientists, Alan Ebringer, a professor of Immunology at King's College, London, and Professor Jon Pirt, have been given 216,000 pounds (315,000 dollars) to research their theory over two years.
They believe the microbe explains why nvCJD is contracted by vegetarians and farmers.
If they are right, it will mean Britain's entire 3.5-billion-pound programme to protect the public from the disease will have been in vain.
Millions of cattle have been slaughtered as part of anti-BSE measures and beef farmers have experienced an unprecedented slump in their fortunes, with many driven into bankruptcy.
"This is not a change of policy, and the money is a fraction of the 13 million pounds (21 million dollars) we spend each year researching BSE," said a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
"But we cannot discount anything."
The theory challenges the accepted wisdom that eating meat contaminated with BSE is the cause of nvCJD, a fatal brain disease for which there is no known cure.
It was the British government's acceptance of this explanation in March 1996 that prompted the European Union to impose a worldwide ban on the export of British beef.
The embargo is to be lifted only after a European inspection mission gives the go-ahead. Northern Ireland, which has a more sophisticated system for tracking cattle, has already resumed exports.
A year and a half ago, the British government also banned the sale of beef on the bone, such as T-bone steaks, over fears that bone marrow could contain BSE which could be released during cooking.
When the measures were announced, they provoked fierce opposition from beef farmers, butchers, restaurateurs and the public, who argued that the risk to public health was too small.
To March 1999, Britain has recorded 40 definite and probable cases of nvCJD.