Scientists widen BSE checks to deer

December 24, 2001 The Guardian by James Meikle

Government scientists are to check deer to see whether they harbour BSE-like diseases under a research programme designed to close loopholes in the battle against a menace that has probably killed more than 100 Britons since 1995 and dogged agriculture for nearly 10 years longer. Precautionary steps to reassure officials about the safety of venison will involve collecting specimens from farmed animals to check their brains and tonsils for both BSE and a similar killer of deer and elk in the United States, chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Britain's large wild deer population may also be monitored for the two diseases although no laboratory experiment to ascertain whether BSE in cattle can be transmitted by injection or feed to deer has been attempted.

In another step to ensure livestock is BSE-free, pigs and poultry in laboratories may be fed affected material. These farm livestock ate far more meat and bonemeal contaminated with BSE than cattle before the feeding practice was banned, but there is no evidence so far from earlier experiments that the disease can be transmitted to pigs or poultry by food. Large injections of infected material can produce the disease in pigs.

The measures are among several demanded by the food standards agency to bolster defences against the threat of more consumers being fatally poisoned by infected food eaten years before the signs of variant CJD - the human form of BSE - even occur.

Work on implementing them was delayed by the foot and mouth crisis and they come on top of vastly increased testing regimes for cattle, sheep and goats demanded by the EU.

The deer survey will involve both a postal questionnaire of farmers to establish whether they have noticed BSE-like diseases and checks on animals which fall ill or die. Organisations that cull wild deer for environmental management and hunters may become involved if the net is widened.

Official figures suggest there are 36,000 deer on just over 300 farms in the UK, although the food standards agency does not know the size of venison consumption in Britain. The scale of wild deer is unknown, although there may be 500,000 in Scotland alone.

Deer experts believe wild populations are healthy, apart from some outbreaks of TB.

A Department of the Environment spokesman said that veterinary laboratories already cross-checked some deer samples collected for other purposes and had found no evidence of BSE-like diseases.

Jane Emerson, of the British Deer Farmers Association, said members had been kept up to date with news of the CWD outbreak in the US and it was highly unlikely that deer in the UK had been infected through feed with BSE.

"But you have to be aware of the risks and what the symptoms are," she said

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