UK Meat Industry 'Blocking
CJD Investigations'
By James Meek
Science Correspondent
The Guardian - London

The head of the unit monitoring cases of variant CJD yesterday accused the meat industry of obstructing efforts to find out what went into cheap pies, sausages and burgers in the 1980s, as the latest analysis confirmed a north-south divide in the risk of contracting the fatal brain disease.
James Ironside, a neuropathologist who heads the national CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh, said the number of cases had gone up by 20%. But people in the north of England and Scotland were twice as likely to get it as those in central and southern England and Wales.
Variant CJD is thought to be caught by eating food containing tissue from cattle infected with BSE. Tissue such as brain and spinal cord contains a much higher proportion of infectious particles, known as prions.
Eating cuts of meat like steak would not necessarily expose people to much of a risk, but cheap minced meat, containing scraps from various parts of cattle, would have before the tight controls introduced in the 1990s when the BSE-vCJD link was officially acknowledged.
The north-south divide in vCJD could be linked to greater poverty and a preference for minced meat prod ucts and offal in the north, but scientists cannot be precise about how the disease spread, and how it is likely to spread in future until the meat industry gives precise information about how, where and when it was cutting regular meat with cheaper tissues.
"We still have a woeful lack of information," Professor Ironside said.
There have been 106 vCJD cases; five patients are still alive. There have been another three cases in France and one in Ireland. Of the 91 British cases at the time the north-south analysis was carried out, 45 were in the north and 46 in the south.
Because the north has about half the population of the south, this gives a northern incidence of 2.7 cases per million, against 1.5 per million in the south.
"I don't think anyone is in a position to accurately predict where the upward curve [in the number of vCJD cases] is going to go," said Professor Ironside. "What I'm saying is that the parameters which might affect the upward curve are, perhaps, widening, and we need to look more closely at what the potential differences between the north and south of the country might be."
The government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee says it has been "continually thwarted" in its attempts to get the meat industry to detail the use of me chanically recovered meat, MRM, the lowest grade of meat for human consumption, scraped from a carcass by machine, before the clampdown.
Bill Jermey, president of the British Meat Manufacturers' Association, rejected accusations of lack of cooperation.
"Certainly the association, which is only part of the meat industry, has been cooperating all the time. We took part in a survey in 1996. It is true that in about 1997-98 we were asked to do another survey, and we questioned what that survey would actually prove, so that wasn't done.
"It's possible that the worse use of MRM took place in many of the smaller operations that are no longer in business. It's going to be very difficult to get to the truth of what happened 10 or 15 years ago."
He suggested the consumption of ox brains should be investigated. One study suggested that prior to the BSE crisis about 200,000 ox brains were sold for human meals each year. "Perhaps there was a regional bias in the consumption of ox brains."
A statement from the Department of Health said yesterday: "We still do not know enough to accurately predict the scale of the spread of the disease and predictive models on the scale of the epidemic are revised as more information becomes available."



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