New foot-and-mouth scare over 'cancer link' dairy products

New foot-and-mouth scare over 'cancer link' dairy products

May 25, 2001 Press Association Newsfile by Simon Mowbray

Fears that the foot-and-mouth crisis could pose perils for human health deepened tonight as a government watchdog warned that cancer-causing chemicals from giant pyres may have ended up in dairy products.

The Food Standard Agency's bleak warning also follows worries that BSE-infected animals culled and buried during the epidemic may now have to be dug up and burned because of the threat of mad cow disease spreading to humans through water supplies.

Ministry of Agriculture officials tonight moved to quell fears over both scares, insisting that all methods of animal disposal during the crisis had been undertaken following advice from experts.

However, the Ministry's insistence that nothing was amiss is unlikely to allay fears that the full repercussions of foot-and-mouth may still be far from over.

The FSA said higher levels of potentially harmful dioxins may be present in dairy herds within two kilometres (1.24 miles) of pyres which were built to dispose of thousands of infected animals but have now stopped.

But it stressed that tests, the results of which will be known by the end of June, had yet to confirm any increases.

The Agency said fatty products in which dioxins are most commonly found, such as whole milk, cream, soft cheese and yoghurt, were most likely to be affected, while any potential risk could be avoided by switching to low-fat alternatives and products made up from a number of herds, such as supermarket milk.

It also stressed that only an estimated "few thousand" people who buy whole milk products directly from farms were at a "slightly higher, although very small, additional risk".

FSA chairman Sir John Krebs said the warning, which he admitted could cause a premature alert before any problem is confirmed, had been made now because thousands of herds had recently been turned out onto pasture land in infected areas.

He said letters had been sent to half of Britain's 30,000 dairy farmers but that only around 900 would be affected by the Agency's advice for them to alert customers about the potential risks.

But he said that even if higher levels of dioxins were found, it only represented a "very small" risk to consumers as harmful dioxins built-up over a lifetime and not just over a matter of weeks.

However, the FSA's frankness was greeted by campaigners who demanded a full inquiry into the government's handling of the crisis.

Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Congratulations to the Food Standards Agency for beginning to live up to its promise to be an independent food safety body.

"Today's announcement is yet more worrying news for farmers and families in foot and mouth areas.

"The Government must give a full account of its handling of the foot and mouth crisis to a public inquiry."

Meanwhile, fears that water supplies could be contaminated with BSE continued after the Department of Health yesterday said that risk assessments would be undertaken at burial sites.

The estimated risk of a person contracting vCJD from water contaminated by buried ash is one in a million, but that risk, though still minute, increases sixfold when intact carcasses are buried.

Only cattle more than five years old are thought to be seriously at risk of BSE, with up to 10,000 culled animals in the country believed to fall into this "at risk" category.

Nevertheless, Professor Peter Smith, chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac), today again moved to quell fears by stressing that any increased risks were likely to be "very small" and associated with drinking water over a long period of time.

A spokeswoman for Maff said that any risks associated with both dioxins from pyres and BSE from burial sites were an unfortunate by-product of the foot-and-mouth outbreak but that every measure had been taken to minimise risks.

"The FSA have clearly said there is unlikely to be any increased risk to consumer.

"We have also consulted with the Environment Agency from the very beginning about suitable disposal sites and we have been very concerned to reduce any risks to human health.

"But there were also risks from failing to deal with the backlog of carcasses remaining on farmyards.

"Our policy has been, and still is, to eradicate the disease and ensure that all risks to public health are minimised.

"We continue to take advice on that from all the relevant authorities."

One more case of foot-and-mouth had been recorded by 3pm today, at Clitheroe in North Yorkshire, taking the total number of outbreaks to 1,636.

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