Label error led to brains mix-up in BSE study

December 1, 2001 The Times (London) by Valerie Elliott
A labelling blunder and poor laboratory practice at the Institute for Animal Health were blamed yesterday for the Pounds 217,000 bungle that allowed scientists testing for BSE in sheep to spend four years working on cattle brains.

The mix-up was discovered last month and the tests immediately abandoned.

Yet two independent audits commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, at a cost of Pounds 55,000, to find out what went wrong were unable to name the culprit or say when the mistake occurred. Instead, standards at the world-renowned animal research establishment were questioned and inadequacies identified in its laboratory procedures.

Chris Bostock, director of the IAH, vehemently rejected the criticisms last night and insisted that there were procedures in place. He said there was no evidence that any mistake had been made by his staff. He remains convinced that his researchers carried out tests on material that came mainly from sheep's brains.

The debacle, however, has prompted new questions about scientific competence within the Government, coming so soon after the BSE inquiry highlighted institutional failures.

David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, said yesterday that extra surveillance in research laboratories might be required and that the public expected best practice from British science.

It was unclear whether the public will ever know whether BSE existed in the national flock at the height of the BSE cattle epidemic in 1990 -the subject of the ruined tests.

Elliot Morley, Animal Health Minister, said yesterday he believed that it was more important to establish whether BSE was in sheep today.

He said that the Government had allocated Pounds 17 million funding for new research and surveillance work to find out if BSE existed in sheep and that from January there would be routine tests on sheep at abattoirs.

Tests to date had found no evidence of BSE in sheep, although there remains a theoretical possibility.

The Consumers' Association demanded urgent answers yesterday on whether BSE was or ever had been in sheep. Mona Patel, its senior public affairs officer, said that consumer confidence in science had been dented by the fiasco and that confusion was rife. The government's BSE experts on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee are to discuss the issue shortly.

One theory for the mix-up is that a former laboratory technician at the Edinburgh centre mistakenly put brain samples in a wrong bag as far back as 1992 or 1993.

This was the view of Ray Baker, chief executive of the IAH's parent body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

He was also unhappy about the tests because the brain material had significantly degraded.

He believed that the labelling of samples were poor.

The brain materials were kept in two bags, one marked BBP (Bovine Brain Pool) and one S (Scrapie), and kept in separate freezers.

But samples inside both bags were similarly labelled by letters. At some point the two bags were moved to the same freezer.

The report from Risk Solutions, independent risk assessors, concluded: "Poor labelling of samples combined with poor control of storage provided opportunity for substitution to occur."

It also reported that the present staff of the IAH were unsure about the labelling on the brain material samples found in the freezer.

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