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Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Q&A: vCJD risk in meat

The UK food industry has been accused of withholding information crucial to calculating the vCJD risk to UK consumers dating back to the 1980s.

The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) has spent five years asking food companies how much "mechanically recovered meat" (MRM) was used in the past, as it is thought this type could carry the most risk of infection.

BBC News Online speaks to Dr Erik Millstone, a specialist in food safety policy at the University of Sussex, about the implications of these revelations.

Dr Millstone has spent the past two-and-a-half years working on two research projects into BSE policy for the European Commission.

What do these revelations mean?

My understanding is that The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) has been asking for this information at least since 1996.

This only came to the forefront because the scientists involved in the inquiry are so exasperated with the lack of information.

They have asked the Ministry of Agriculture for the information and it was singularly unhelpful. They asked the Food Standards Agency, which was unhelpful and the newly formed Defra has also been uncooperative.

It does not reflect well on any of them. Now that the story has broken, the Food Standards Agency has said it will try to obtain the information as soon as possible.

Why has this information been withheld?

I have not been a fly on their walls, but I do understand why the food industry has been reluctant to provide this information.

If you are a parent of a vCJD victim and you can show that your child ate particular food products that contained "mechanically retrieved meat" on a regular basis then you might have a pretty good case to sue the company responsible.

Why is it important to know which foods contained MRM?

If we knew, we might be able to reach some conclusions as to how far the disease may spread.

It would enable us to narrow the focus and decide on what steps need to be taken next.

Do you think MRM is the most likely route by which CJD is spread?

Out of all the bits of animal that went into the food chain it is quite likely that the level of infection in MRM was higher than in many others because a lot of MRM came from tissue close to the spinal column.

Is MRM still going into food?

I don't know. But if it is, it is being done unlawfully.

What is your opinion on the government's handling of this issue?

I am seriously underwhelmed. We want an explanation as to why it took so long and why, after five years of asking, Seac still has not been provided with the information it needs and why the only way it can get these answers is by going public.

What are the implications for the general public?

Who knows? If and when the data becomes publicly available then I'll be able to answer that question.

But at the moment we do not know to what extent MRM was used. Did it go in baby food? Did it go in school dinners? We still do not know how much information we are actually going to get.





See also:

09 Aug 01 | Health
Meat industry attacked over CJD
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