Anger at cover-up of BSE blunder:
Government told three months ago test to find disease in sheep was botched

October 21, 2001 The Observer by Kamal Ahmed and Robin McKie

THE GOVERNMENT was first told more than three months ago that a major scientific experiment to find BSE in sheep was facing disaster because of contamination, The Observer can reveal.

Senior Whitehall sources said they were told early in the summer that sheep brain material they were testing for BSE appeared to contain traces of bovine remains. A month ago, the Government ordered DNA tests on the experiment, which revealed last week that the five-year project to test whether eating lamb was safe had been ruined. 'We had known for a while that the experiment had been undermined by contamination issues,' a department official said. 'But we thought that just part of the experiment had been affected, rather than the whole thing. We did not know the extent of it.'

SEAC, the government advisory body on BSE and its human equivalent, new variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (vCJD), was also told of the problems with the pounds 217,000 experiment early in the summer. The fact that the Government knew about the contamination shortly after the last election raises questions about the way the department handled the announcement last week that scientists had been testing cows' brains instead of sheep's.

They faced heavy criticism after an unclear press release revealing the fiasco was rushed out at 9pm on Wednesday night, well after most news organisations could react. The word 'cow' was not mentioned, making it difficult to judge the seriousness of the problem.

Peter Ainsworth, the Conservatives' rural affairs spokesman, accused the department of catching 'Jo Moore syndrome', named after the government adviser who said that the events of 11 September would offer a good opportunity to 'bury' bad news. Labour MPs were also angry because it was too late to force the Government to make an emergency statement on the issue in the House of Commons.

Yesterday, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Rural Affairs, said the way the announcement had been handled was 'an error'.

She told Radio 4's Today programme: 'I gave instructions, perhaps in error, that the statement that had been drafted to explain what we knew should be put into the public domain as soon as possible.

'Yes, we didn't have time to brief specialist correspondents, we hadn't known for long enough. Yes we didn't wait and have a press conference in the morning. I feel strongly confident that if we had we would have been accused of trying to bury the information altogether.'

A month ago, Beckett's department asked the Laboratory of the Government Chemist to undertake tests on the material scientists were looking at. Helen Parkes, head of life sciences research at the LGC, said that when they had been asked to check for traces of bovine material in the samples, they were shocked to find nothing but bovine material.

A government source said yesterday that it was unlikely the experiment would be repeated, as it was now more important to check the existing sheep flock rather than old samples.

The source said that latest tests revealed no evidence of BSE in sheep. More than 400 experiments on sheep brains carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, had found no link between sheep and BSE.

The tests were carried out after fears that BSE could be caught by sheep, which are already affected by a similar disease called scrapie.

'Margaret Beckett should apologise for the underhand way in which this information was released, explain why it was decided to publish the findings late at night and sack whoever took this decision,' Ainsworth said.

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