Ministry ignored two-day test for mad cow disease

October 20, 2001 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Charles Clover
MARGARET Beckett, the Environment Secretary, was under pressure last night to explain why her department ignored the advice of scientists who could have shown by now whether or not there was bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the national sheep flock.

After the collapse of four years' research into BSE in sheep because scientists used the brains of cows by mistake, a leading Government scientific adviser openly criticised the ministry's delay in acting as "disgraceful".

Prof John Collinge, the director of the Medical Research Council's prion unit and a member of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, said the scientists who commited the blunder had not only been using the wrong brains but were using the wrong experiment.

Prof Collinge of Imperial College, London, who discovered that variant CJD was the human variety of BSE in 1996, suggested that year that veterinary laboratories should adopt his test which would have found BSE, if present in sheep, in two days instead of two years. Three years passed then he wrote to ministers criticising the delays in testing the flock for BSE, and suggesting that they used his test. He heard nothing. Prof Collinge added that the risk of BSE in sheep was not a "theoretical risk" - as the Food Standards Agency put it yesterday - but a strong possibility in the early Nineties. Sheep, he said, were known to be susceptible to the disease and could be infected with half a gram of infected material in contaminated feed.

"It is likely they were fed contaminated meat and bonemeal in the late Eighties and early Nineties. It would be very surprising if some weren't infected. The question is, has it died out? This is a serious problem."

Prof Collinge first suggested using his new molecular strain typing test in the Seac committee in 1997 and assumed that the advice had reached ministers.

"Nothing happened. At the end of 1999 I wrote to the highest level in Government and said my test could be used to test the health of the national flock much faster than the tests used before.

"We could have sorted it out two years ago. But we are five years on and we are no further forward. It was as if they did not want to find the answer."

The FSA was under pressure to issue new advice on the safety of feeding British lamb and mutton to babies and children last night after the consumer representative on Seac, Harriet Kimbell, said she did not feed British lamb to her teenage sons but would eat it herself.

Prof Kimbell, the principal law lecturer at Guildford College of Law, said the agency should publish advice specifically on risks to children. "I am not necessarily suggesting there should be a ban on children eating British lamb but I believe that there should be more information given to parents," she said.

Prof John Krebs, the agency's chairman, told the BBC's Today programme that he had spoken to baby food manufacturers and been assured that they used only New Zealand lamb in their products.

An agency spokesman said it did not advise against the eating of sheep meat.

Peter Ainsworth, the Tory environment spokesman, said the failure by Mrs Beckett's department to take up a speedy scientific method of testing for BSE in sheep three years ago was "utterly unforgivable". He added that the blunders in the testing were "a major setback to the vital task of restoring public confidence in our food".

David Curry, the Tory chairman of the environment select committee, said he had tabled a question for Mrs Beckett asking where the collapse of the Institute of Animal Health's study left the search for BSE in sheep.

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