BSE meat risk from abattoir culls

BSE meat risk from abattoir culls

June 6, 2001 The Guardian by James Meikle

Consumers might still be eating BSE infected meat because of accidental cross-contamination in some abattoirs, scientists warned last night.

They said urgent consideration must be given to the possibility that potentially dangerous material from slaughtered older cattle not destined for the food chain had been transferred to meat bound for human consumption.

The EU rules, which banned animals destined for either of the two groups of meat being killed on the same day, were probably not enough to eliminate risk, since rogue prion proteins, thought to be a key factor in both BSE and its deadly human form, were not eradicated by the conventional sterilisation procedures.

A Royal Society and Academy of Medical Sciences team queried in a report published last night the theoretical risk in eight slaughterhouses from 394 licensed for slaughtering old and young cattle.

Many of the government's independent advisers on BSE-like diseases contributed to the report. The food standards agency said it would examine the threat, which it was taking seriously.

Cattle older than 30 months, which are those considered most likely to harbour infective BSE material, have not been allowed as human food since 1996, but some abattoirs contracted to cull the animals have also produced meat for butchers and supermarkets

Spot checks for the Ministry of Agriculture suggest that one in every 250 older animals slaughtered is in the later stages of BSE without having displayed outward signs of the disease. Nearly 180,000 cases of BSE have been formally identified in the UK in nearly 15 years.

Brian Heap, master of St Edmund's College, Cambridge, the chairman of the group, said last night: "According to one report, some prions may still be active even after heating to 600C, although this observation needs to be confirmed by further research ... we need to establish that work surfaces and equipment in abattoirs are not contaminated."

Operations at the "dual use" abattoirs were suspended in February because of foot and mouth restrictions. Sir John Krebs, chairman of the food standards agency, said last night they would not be allowed to restart work until further checks. "There are strict rules to prevent cross contamination but these need to be re-examined [after] this report."

Concerns about shortcomings in sterilisation already have been raised with regard to contamination of patients during surgery via instruments passing on variant CJD, the human form of BSE. This has already led to huge delays in tonsil operations, mainly on children, while disposable instruments are supplied. Other reviews are being conducted into the potential risks of eye and brain operations and blood transfusions.

The working party said that the costs of further controls needed to be carefully weighed against the benefits.

Figures from the Department of Health suggest 101 Britons have now contracted variant CJD, seven of whom are still alive.

The report endorses the need for tests for detecting early signs of variant CJD in humans, BSE and similar diseases in livestock. It calls for measures to remove the backlog of remains of nearly 5m older culled cattle that have been held in storage pending incineration.

* Northern Ireland has become the only UK region to gain permission to resume exports - worth 200m - of meat, dairy products, and live pigs and sheep, following Europe's lifting of restrictions linked to foot and mouth disease. The decision will be formally adopted by the EU probably no later than Thursday. The export of live sheep will start again on July 1.

The lifting of restrictions has been made possible because there have been no foot and mouth cases reported in Northern Ireland for six weeks. But exports of live cattle remain banned, and controls of livestock and produce going to Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain will stay for the time being. Controls on the movement of farm animals in the province will also stay in place.

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