Maff knew of BSE risk before cattle burials

MAFF knew of BSE risk before cattle burials

June 1, 2001 The Guardian (London)  by James Meikle and Paul Brown

The Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) allowed cattle at risk of carrying BSE to be buried as part of the foot and mouth cull for five weeks despite being warned against it before the slaughter started, it emerged yesterday.

The practice has been effectively banned since the end of March because of the danger of infective protein entering the soil or water sources.

But a senior official from the environment agency said the presumption had been from the start of the outbreak that older cattle should not be buried. "We were very surprised to find animals over five years old had been buried," said Geoffrey Bateman, coordinating the agency's part of the cross-departmental response to the epidemic.

Seven new cases of the disease were identified yesterday, four in Skipton, north Yorkshire, bringing the total around the town to 12 in 10 days. Extra movement restrictions have been imposed on farms throughout the area, which includes Settle and Clitheroe, in Lancashire.

Two more cases were reported in Cumbria and one in Cleveland as the overall total climbed to 1,668.

The Department of Health attempted to reassure the public about the low risk of infection or pollution from carcasses waiting for disposal. It also promised that monitoring would continue long after the epidemic had waned.

It said that routine checks had been in place since the start, although it emerged that extra monitoring was not conducted until long after. Checks on air pollution around pyres started in April and the food standards agency only began systematic monitoring as cattle were turned out of winter quarters to graze a few weeks ago. It has already warned of a small extra risk to health from full fat dairy products from farms near pyres.

Mr Bateman's potentially embarrassing remarks were countered by a Maff spokesman, who said: "Where other options were not available they were content we should bury."

He added that the risks from contamination with BSE prions from the remains of old cattle were very small.

Advisers on the threat of BSE have said that rendering and incineration of older cattle is far safer than burial. About 10,000 cattle over five years old were buried early in the epidemic, mainly along the Welsh borders, near Worcester and Gloucester and in the north-east and north-west. Of these, an estimated 40 may have been infected taking into account current levels of BSE in the national herd, Such older animals are banned from food.

The environment agency is now checking an estimated 55 burial sites where older cows were buried to reassess the potential risks and is trying to ensure that disinfectant used on farms to clean up after culls does not leach into water.

Pat Troop, deputy chief medical officer, denied any suggestion that health concerns had been downplayed. Given that 4m animals would be destroyed to contain foot and mouth, the vast majority of caracasses had been "disposed of in an extraordinarily effective and safe way". The authorities had had ahuge problem to deal with and it had been recognised that in the early stages people may have made decisions they would not have made later on.

A Department of Health summary published yesterday said that while the risk of humans acquiring foot and mouth is extremely small, "disposal of carcasses on the scale now being undertaken cannot be carried out without some risk to human health". It listed its preferred order of disposal, withthe boiling down of remains as the safest option.

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