BSE sheep warnings ignored for years

October 21, 2001 Sunday Times (London) by Jonathan Leake

Scientists scorn government tests

THE government was yesterday accused by top scientists of putting the public's health at risk by ignoring repeated requests that it carry out a nationwide survey of sheep for evidence of BSE.

Professor Roy Anderson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, London, and Professor John Collinge, director of the Medical Research Council's prion research unit, have told the government that it should have initiated the study years ago, that its research has been deeply flawed and that it has failed to grasp the potential size of the problem.

They say they have persistently told ministers that BSE could have spread among sheep just as it spread through cattle -but that nobody would know because it is masked by scrapie, a similar condition already common in sheep.

The revelation follows the fiasco of last week when Margaret Beckett, the environment and rural affairs minister, announced that a large-scale study on sheep commissioned by the government appeared to be fundamentally flawed. Instead of sampling sheep brains, as was intended, her department is thought to have overseen a five-year Pounds 217,000 analysis of bovine tissue that was riddled with BSE by mistake.

Only a last-minute check of the samples by an independent laboratory prevented Beckett from announcing that the British sheep population was infected and possibly ordering a national cull.

Anderson and Collinge are furious with the government for relying on a complex study when other simpler checks could have been run in parallel.

They point out that almost all the testing done on sheep has relied on injecting genetically modified mice with material extracted from the brains of suspect animals. A single animal's brain material must be injected into the heads of 100-120 mice, which are then kept under observation for up to three years to see what disease they develop.

Such tests, the scientists point out, are labour-intensive, time-consuming and need huge premises to house all the mice. Collinge has persistently recommended that the government uses a much speedier chemical testing method that he has perfected, which takes just two weeks to give a definite result.

In a paper published in The Lancet two years ago, Collinge warned: "The possibility that BSE may have been transmitted to sheep has caused concern. BSE that has been transmitted is clinically indistinguishable from scrapie."

Anderson concedes that the government did carry out a survey of 180 sheep infected with scrapie outside its main study, but believes it was far too small to produce statistically valid results. Civil servants, he said, had persistently ignored his calls to expand the work.

"Scrapie is found in only a few per cent of sheep. The fraction with BSE will be even smaller, so to detect it you need to sample thousands of sheep brains - but Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has looked at only 180. We have made this clear to Defra to no avail, which I find really very disturbing," he said.

Collinge has expressed similar fears for even longer. He first raised them in 1996 when the Tories were in power, telling his fellow members of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac), which advises the government, that widespread testing on sheep was urgently needed.

No action was taken but Collinge was so worried that he raised the matter with ministers -again to no avail.

Collinge has also protested strongly at the government's failure to commission research into the possibility that there are different types of BSE -an extremely serious issue since alternative strains could vary enormously in infectivity.

"Only nine cattle brains, from more than 170,000, have been strain-typed, so the existence of other less common BSE strains is possible," he said.

The issue was thrown into further chaos this weekend when Professor Chris Bostock, director of the Institute for Animal Health which carried out the main study, said there was still a 50% chance that the study would be proved safe.

He said the material his team had used had been fully tested and had been confirmed as coming from sheep. "This means the real error could have been in the material we sent for the final checking. If so, then the work will still be valid," Bostock said.

Experiments show that sheep can develop BSE when they are given the same feed that infected 1m cattle.

Bostock also warned that research into the 180 sheep diagnosed with scrapie, from 1997 to 2000, had not, as the government claimed last week, cleared them of suffering from BSE. "Material was injected into mice, some of which came down with a disease that could be scrapie or BSE," he said.

A positive finding of BSE in even one of the 180 brains would be devastating, since it would suggest that not only did BSE transmit to millions of sheep in the early 1990s, but that it has also been transmitted down the generations in the same way as scrapie.

The only way of getting rid of it would be to slaughter every sheep in Britain.

Worse, it would mean that millions more consumers than expected have been exposed to BSE.

This weekend Beckett acknowledged the criticisms after Defra plunged the government into a public relations disaster with a bland press release that gave no hint of the devastating details. She also announced a complete review of her department's research into BSE.

Defra had briefed the Press Association to put out a release, now acknowledged as misleading, saying, "No sign of BSE in sheep -Defra".

Beckett confirmed that she had put out the release against the advice of her officials. "We could have done it a lot better. One result is that we are going to review all the science being done on BSE," she said.

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