Food Standards bosses have come under fire for being overzealous in issuing information about the risk to humans of atypical scrapie in sheep.
The advice from the Food Standards Agency has been picked up on by newspapers with headlines playing up the possible health risk. The issue is so contentious that, last week, FSA board members reportedly clashed over whether or not to release the information.
The FSA is not advising people to stop eating sheep or goat meat, but it has confirmed that tests are being done to see if there is a risk to human health. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), which is carrying out the research, said that because the brain disease can be passed from sheep to mice "a theoretical risk cannot be excluded."
Although there is no evidence of a risk at the moment, atypical scrapie is in the same family of brain diseases as BSE, so media interest has been widespread and often inflamatory.
Farmers and meat industry bosses have accused the FSA of threatening their livelihood, and Douglas Scott of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders said it had been too "cautious" in issuing the advice, causing unnecessary concern for consumers. The new advice states that: - 'While the agency is not advising anyone to stop eating sheep or goat meat products, any possible risk could be reduced further by not eating meat from older animals. This is because, if there were a risk, it would be greater in older animals. Meat from older animals is known as mutton.'
It continues: 'In addition, some sausages are contained in natural casings made from sheep intestines, which are more likely to carry the disease agent and therefore could present a greater danger.'
Douglas Scott, who listened to the FSA board meeting on 15 June, via a telephone link-up, said some members of the board were unsure whether the information should be released to the public at all because there is no known problem. Scott said the FSA was quite rightly addressing the risk by doing the tests, but he said "because we don't know of a problem" the advice is "a bit over the top". Farmers' reaction was "definitely justified", he added.
Peter King, chief livestock adviser to the National Farmers Union (NFU) said the the FSA's advice "raised the suspicion that there is something to worry about."
"The FSA has come a cropper because of its own openness," said Scott, but he was optimistic that the newspaper stories would not trigger another food scare.
He said: "The public has seen it all before. There is no scientific evidence, just theoretical evidence, and if people read beyond the headlines they will be able to make up their own minds."