BSE crisis talks over risk from cattle cull

BSE crisis talks over risk from cattle cull

May 21, 2001 Guardian by Paul Harris and Jason Burke
Ministers have summoned their top scientific advisers to an emergency meeting as fears mount that ash and the buried carcasses of cows slaughtered during the foot and mouth epidemic could be spreading the deadly human version of BSE .

On Thursday new evidence from tests at hundreds of sites where cattle have been burnt or buried will be reviewed by experts. Ministers are concerned that proteins known as 'prions' which cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and are found in BSE-infected meat may have polluted the water supply or the air. The hastily convened meeting shows the depth of Ministers' concern .

Members of the committee have confirmed to The Observer that the mass slaughter programme posed a risk of infection from prions. 'There is certainly a risk, but we do not know how big or small it is,' said Professor Harriet Kimbell.

Another committee member, veterinary surgeon Peter Jinman, said he had been called early last week and told of the meeting 'specifically to look at this issue of possible contamination'.

The problem lies with cows that are older than 30 months and may have developed BSE. Though enormous efforts have been made to stamp out the disease in Britain, experts believe that nearly 2 per cent of cattle are still infected .

Usually the infected cattle have special rules governing the disposal of their carcasses, but during the foot and mouth epidemic whole herds were slaughtered and disposed of without testing.

Environmental health officials in Devon, one of the areas hardest hit by foot and mouth, told The Observer that in many instances piles of ash remain unburied. In some cases the ash has lain exposed for up to three months. That raises the risk of prions being blown away on the wind or washed into local streams and rivers .

Nicholas Mann, a senior commercial services manager for Torridge District Council, said there were up to 40 ash pyres in his district alone. Adverts in local newspapers have been placed asking residents within two kilometres of a pyre to come forward to have their water supplies tested for ash contamination.

Aside from prions, other possible contaminations include bacteria such as E.coli and campylobacter, which are harmful to humans. 'It is a worry and we are seeking advice from our local health authority on communicable disease,' Mann said.

A spokesman from the Environment Agency said that routine tests were continuing. She said that all ash was disposed of after assessment of potential health and environmental risks.

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