March 1, 2002 Farmers Guardian by Alistair DriverTHE Government is being urged to launch a thorough investigation into whether imported feed ingredients contaminated with meat and bonemeal are causing BSE in the UK.
The calls follow controversial comments this week by Government scientist Prof John Wilesmith. He speculated on a possible link between imported vegetable proteins and the growing number of BSE cases in animals born since the UK feed ban was fully implemented in August 1996.
Feed importers responded furiously, claiming it 'incredibly unlikely' that imported proteins would be exposed to MBM. Nonetheless, there have been demands for an investigation, led by a member of SEAC, the Government's BSE advisory committee. Prof Wilesmith, of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, has completed a study that he says virtually rules out the possibility of BSE passing from mother to calf. Embryos from infected cows were fertilised with semen from infected bulls and placed in the womb of healthy surrogate mothers from New Zealand in the early 1990s. A total of 266 calves were born and they and the mothers were monitored for seven years. None showed signs of BSE.
Asked on Radio 4's Farming Today programme, why cattle are still getting BSE, he said: "My working hypothesis is that we are still dealing with cross contamination, not from a British source but from ships importing (feed ingredients) into the UK."
The controversy follows calls last week by EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne for the destruction of stocks of MBM that have built up since it was banned across the EU in 2001.
SEAC member Peter Jinman said the 'ground breaking' research should spark new investigations into possible routes of BSE infection, even though he believes it does not absolutely rule out maternal transmission.
Until now, ironically on the basis of work by Prof Wilesmith about 10 years ago, the Government has maintained that maternal transmission levels of 'up to 10 per cent' may occur. It has pointed to this as a possible explanation for some of 13 cases of BSE in animals born after August, 1996.
"The question of how this infection is occurring is clearly something SEAC will be looking at," said Mr Jinman.
"Prof Wilesmith has proposed that imported material has been contaminated en route. This is something that has not been researched fully and must now be investigated."
It is also possible, he added, that the cases are simply an example of 'residual BSE infection' that has always existed in the cattle herd.
A DEFRA spokesman said investigations into six of the cases have suggested that imports may be to blame. "All of the animals were fed on rations containing imported ingredients, which does suggest the possibility of cross contamination of imported vegetable protein," she said, adding that a range of explanations are being considered, including the continued use of MBM from the UK.
She said it will be up to SEAC to review the implications for BSE controls, including the ban on offspring from BSE cases entering the food chain and moves to relax the over thirty month rule for animals born after August 1996.
The Grain and Free Trade Association, which imports the vegetable protein, dismissed the import theory as a 'red herring'. Director general Pamela Kirby Johnson said almost all UK cattle feed contains imported ingredients so the link between the six BARB cases is irrelevant.
She said the majority of the 36 million tonnes of protein, mainly soya and rapeseed, imported annually comes from Argentina, Brazil, the USA and Canada, where there is hardly any BSE, straight to the UK. She admitted, however, that 'a very little' does come via EU countries, but could not give details.
"That is not really the issue as the huge ships they are transported in do not carry MBM," she said. "The UK still has the most cases of BSE and still has stocks of MBM. People should not make such statements without a thorough investigation of the facts first."
Jim Reed, the chief executive of UKASTA, which represents UK feed manufacturers, put forward a different version. He said a lot of the protein does come to the UK via EU countries, much of it through the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp. "Cross contamination of protein from EU stocks is possibility. We are looking for help from DEFRA now. They are going to have to investigate it properly," he said.