Discovery of BSE cow dashes hopes of reducing controls

February 8, 2002 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
Hopes of reducing BSE controls may have suffered a mortal blow as government agencies yesterday revealed that the youngest confirmed case in a cow for six years had been found in Northern Ireland.

The animal was 31 months old, only a month older than the age at which animals are considered safe enough to be used for food, and is bound to raise questions as to whether any younger infected animals that have not displayed clinical signs of the fatal disease are slipping through the net.

Two more cases in England will be reported today which will take the total to seven announcements in nine weeks of BSE being found in an animal born after feed controls were introduced to kill the disease. The total has now hit 13, and is showing worrying acceleration since only six such animals were discovered between the first in June 2000 and the sixth on August 28 2001. Three of the animals have been reported in Northern Ireland but officials across the UK are preparing for more cases as testing is increased. But this is so far only done on animals over 30 months, and there are renewed questions about whether animals going into food should be tested too. British officials have argued there is no need to follow other EU countries in doing this because of the existence of the 30 month rule which other countries do not have.

Concern is also mounting since only three weeks ago the 29-month-old offspring of a BSE case in Wales slipped accidentally into the food chain, raising concerns about how controls are being operated.

The Human BSE Foundation representing families of many of the 114 British victims of variant CJD, eight of whom are still alive, are furious at the food standards agency, which yesterday said there had been no risk from the latest case because it had been detected.

Lester Firkins, the foundation's chairman, said: "A couple of weeks ago they found one that was not detected and did enter the food chain. There must be more of a risk now as a) they are finding more cases that exist and b) they are missing cases."

The 30 month rule was introduced in April 1996 after the first vCJD cases were reported and the link established with eating cattle products. By August the same year, tough new feed controls were introduced in the hope of stopping the disease being spread by cattle and sheep eating products made from any other mammals that might have the disease.

There have now been more than 180,000 confirmed BSE cases in the United Kingdom since 1986 and though a handful of cases of so-called born-after-the-ban animals were expected, because of maternal transmission, very few of the cases reported have had any indication that this was the route of infection.

Accidental cross-contamination of feed after the ban, deliberate law breaking by farmers or the possibility that the disease was being spread through infected pasture are all being examined. However, the length of time between infection and obvious disease is hindering all efforts to resolve the problem.

Government officials have always argued that a ban on any parts of cattle most likely to carry BSE, introduced in 1989, and the 30 month rule are sufficient public health measures to combat the disease they hoped was going away.

The food agency said last night that all the born-after-the-ban cases would be considered, along with other evidence, when the 30 month rule was reviewed later this year. The review will start in May.

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