A senior scientist is calling for more rigorous testing and surveillance when it comes to BSE, flying in the face of industry demands for a relaxation of controls and the re-introduction of meat and bonemeal feed to animals.
The calls, by Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University, were made following a conference held in Turin recently, which found that the infectious agent causing BSE is a mutation of the prion protein and is found in contaminated meat and bonemeal feed. This mutation has been reported in an animal in France and the United States. The prion gene mutation is identical to the one that causes one of the commonest forms of familial CJD.
Professor Ferguson-Smith urged the government to include tests for DNA sequencing of sporadic BSE cases to identify possible new mutations as, he said, transmission of the disease gene to the offspring of affected cattle is possible with the attendant risk of variant CJD in humans.
He criticised the MAFF BSE inquiry which maintained that BSE arose from scrapie in sheep. "Circumstantial evidence shows otherwise. This has misled government policy and delayed investigation of the genetic source of BSE. Even a fraction of a gramme can cause BSE in cattle. Feeding meat and bonemeal feed, even to pigs, is dangerous as they can transmit the disease," he added.
Around 126 cattle have gone down with BSE after meat and bonemeal feed was banned in 1996 which means there is a real possibility of sporadic mutations, which is why there should be no relaxation in BSE testing, he said.
Meanwhile, Unison concerns over the possible swapping of brain samples of Over Thirty Month (OTM) cattle with those Under Thirty Month (UTM), in the wake of a mistake made at Dunbai, have been swept aside by the Food Standards Agency.
The FSA said no evidence has been produced to support the claims that substitution is taking place on OTM-approved abattoirs. "We take any claims of fraudulent practice in OTM abattoirs very seriously," a spokesman said.
In the Dunbia case, beef products were taken off supermarket shelves in Asda and the Co-op after a 54-month old animal was wrongly identified as being UTM and was slaughtered without being tested for BSE.
Defra announced last week it was introducing tamper evident bags as of 21 November in a tightening up of procedures.