Alarm as food chiefs say that lamb was as big a BSE risk as beef

Alarm as food chiefs say that lamb was as big a BSE risk as beef

August 3, 2001 Daily Mail (London) by Christian Gysin

FAMILIES who ate lamb in the early 1990s may have been at risk of BSE infection, it emerged yesterday.

The shock suggestion by the Food Standards Agency will worry and anger consumers who switched from beef for safety reasons.

It came as the Government, farmers and retailers launched a campaign to encourage people to eat more lamb. The FSA intervention could be a hammer blow to an industry reeling from the foot-and-mouth crisis and a decision yesterday to slaughter 1.5million unwanted lambs.

The Government watchdog said it was not advising people to stop eating lamb, as the chance of infection now was very slight.

But it said tests on sheep which were thought to have died of a related disease, scrapie, in the early 1990s had been unable to rule out the possibility that they had BSE.

It is known that millions of sheep were fed the suspect feed which has been implicated in the development of 'Mad Cow Disease' in cattle. Its human equivalent, vCJD, has so far claimed 102 lives in Britain.

The FSA said its research will not produce clear results until October, but admitted the findings so far 'could be compatible with BSE having been in sheep at that time.' The statement was seen in some quarters as softening up the public for an autumn announcement confirming BSE in sheep.

The timing of the FSA's announcement also suggested that the Government and its watchdogs do not want to be accused of promoting lamb while privately investigating a health risk.

Experiments have already shown that sheep can become ill if they are fed even tiny amounts of BSE-infected material.

In a particularly worrying discovery, scientists have found that the disease spreads through the animal's entire nervous system, making all its meat a risk.

Frances Hall, whose 21-year- old son Peter died of BSE, said last night: 'This is extremely worrying.

Lots of people did switch to eating lamb, thinking it was safer. They will be horrified.'

Mrs Hall, from Newcastle upon Tyne, said: 'People will want to know why these experiments weren't carried out earlier. We now need to know whether BSE is still in our national sheep herd.'

Microbiologist Dr Stephen Dealler, a BSE expert, also condemned the delays.

He said: 'This is an indictment of the way in which bad news gets denied by officialdom.'

But he said the fact the FSA had ordered such experiments and made the results public was a step forward compared with the 'head in the sand' attitude of the Agriculture Ministry.

Although the fact that BSE could infect humans was not confirmed until March 1996, there had been years of rumours about the safety of beef and many people had already stopped eating it.

Millions more switched to other meats after the BSE crisis broke.

Food Minister Lord Whitty yesterday admitted the 'theoretical' risk of BSE in sheep in a speech to a conference on foot-and-mouth.

He said the FSA had issued its statement 'in the interest of open government' and outlined plans to develop breeds of sheep that would be resistant to both scrapie and BSE.

Experts believe the chance of BSE-infected sheep still being in circulation is small, because they would have been slaughtered long ago.

* Youth hostels across England and Wales face closure because of the foot-and-mouth crisis, it emerged yesterday.

Roger Clarke, chief executive of the Youth Hostels Association, said 'significant numbers' of hostels, including some at its more popular locations, may need to be sold.

Business this year is down 30 per cent and the charity has been forced to seek a GBP 5million bank overdraft.

Mr Clarke blamed the Government for sending out the 'unfortunate and negative' message that the countryside was 'out of bounds' at the start of the crisis in February.

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