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Chops from older sheep face ban in BSE move

March 6, 2002 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Roger Highfield
A BAN on mutton chops and lamb stew is being considered by Government scientists to prevent the possible spread of CJD.

Stopping consumption of lamb aged over a year, or "on the bone", is one of the options being looked at to reduce the risk of people developing variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or "human BSE".

The measures would substantially cut the risk of BSE-infected sheep entering the food chain. However, there is no evidence yet that Britain's sheep have been infected with BSE and some measures could have a severe impact on farmers, the meat industry and rural communities struggling to rebuild their livelihoods after the foot and mouth crisis.

Options debated at a series of meetings were discussed yesterday by the Food Standards Agency and will be turned into a report for public consultation at the end of this month. The response will go before its board in May before the agency advises the Government.

The agency said: "The risk remains theoretical and the agency is not advising against the consumption of lamb."

The head, spinal cord and spleen are already removed from the carcasses of sheep older than one year, and the spleen is removed from 6- to 12-month-old sheep.

Around 16 per cent of the 16 million animals that are consumed are older than a year and one option is to remove them from the food chain since they would be more infective if they had contracted BSE.

Other options, because spongiform disease spreads to a wider range of tissues in sheep compared with cattle, are stopping the use of intestines for sausages, meat from the bone, and lymph nodes. Don Thomas, managing director of Welsh Lamb & Beef, said any requirement to remove lymph nodes from sheep would be a disaster for all of Wales and many parts of England.

Removing lymph nodes would mean removing the femur - the main bone - from leg of lamb and probably the entire shoulder joint from shoulders of lamb, he said.

"The added cost of removing lymph nodes would price Welsh lamb out of the market. Welsh and hill lambs are small carcasses. Removing bones would make the remaining meat extremely expensive."

Mr Thomas added: "If there is a real risk of BSE in lamb and precautionary restrictions are being considered, then they should be implemented Europe-wide."

Removal of sheep over the age of one would cut the risk by around 75 per cent and combined with removal of intestines and lymph nodes would reduce the risk by around 95 per cent overall, said Prof Peter Smith, chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) which advises the Government and has been discussing the measures.

A recent study by Imperial College concluded that the risk of contracting human BSE could now be much greater from eating lamb than beef, if sheep have also become infected with the disease.

Because relatively few sheep have been tested for BSE and because of the recent fiasco in which scientists looking for BSE spent four years studying cows' brains, the extent of its spread among sheep remains unknown.

A spokesman for the National Farmers' Union said there was no evidence of naturally occurring BSE in sheep and added: "Even so, the UK already enforces a programme of removing risk material as a similar safeguard to that in beef."

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