BSE adviser urges beef import curbs

May 15, 2002 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
Tighter controls against imported beef pate, sausages and meat pies should be considered as the BSE crisis continued through Europe, a government scientific adviser warned yesterday.

Roy Anderson said anti-BSE measures in the rest of the European Union should not lead consumers into a false sense of security since tests on cattle for the disease could not necessarily identify infected animals.

He cautioned against Britain relaxing its ban on most cattle over 30 months entering the food chain, a measure not copied elsewhere. This was a far better safety measure than the tests. His remarks will keep alive suspicions that consumers in Europe are not being as well protected against BSE as in Britain, although the risk in the EU pales by comparison with that which existed in this country before any anti-BSE measures for food were introduced in 1989. Other countries allow older cattle to go into food provided they are tested free of BSE. Although meat from these cannot be sold to Britain in carcass form, it can enter the country as processed food. The food standards agency has long recognised these products might pose a higher risk to consumers and has advised them to establish their country of origin, even if the law does not yet require this on labels.

Prof Anderson, of Imperial College, London, and a member of the government's anti-BSE committee, Seac, said the loophole was one "which in an ideal world you would like to block" and "which I have been on about for some time".

He said: "People could be fooled, 'it is tested, it is safe'," when in fact firms making the testing equipment and companies using it had to address the issue of how sensitive the tests really were. They might be picking up infectivity only in the last few months of incubation when meat could be unsafe long before. "As the European epidemic develops this is something we shall increasingly have to keep an eye on."

Britain tests hardly any apparently healthy animals compared to other countries because of its 30-month rule. Yet it still had 135 cases of BSE in January and February, taking to the total towards 181,000 since 1986. Ireland has had 907 cases, with 60 in the first two months of the year. France, with 52 cases in the first two months of the year, has recorded 571 cases and Germany, 29 cases in January and February, has had 167 in all.

The food standards agency is reviewing whether it should recommend changes to the 30-month rule as part of a regular check on anti-BSE measures.

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