Monday, May 17, 1999 Published at 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
BSE 'may never have posed human danger'
The government culled entire herds in response to health fears
BSE-infected beef may have never posed a risk to human health, researchers have said.
They have now received funding from the Ministry of Agriculture to see if they can confirm their findings.
The UK Government banned some beef products as a result of public health fears, and many countries have banned the import of British beef.
It had been thought that eating beef from cattle suffering Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - or mad cow disease - could lead to a variant form of the human brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD).
The scientists involved in the research claim that CJD is in fact caused by the body's own reaction to a bacterium found commonly in contaminated water and the soil.
If they turn out to be right it would mean that the entire campaign to protect consumers by eradicating BSE - costing £3.5 bn, and wrecking the British beef industry - has been wasted.
The Ministry of Agriculture has offered Alan Ebringer, professor of immunology at King's College London, £250,000 to further his research.
Professor Ebringer told the BBC's World At One programme the work could have wide implications.
"If this theory can be confirmed by further studies it would indicate that meat is safe for human consumption, and there was never any danger of developing CJD by eating meat," he said.
Immune system disease
The principle he is examining suggests that BSE is similar to an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases are caused by the body attacking itself - immune cells think the body's own tissue is foreign and seek to eradicate it.
Professor Ebringer thinks BSE is caused by bacteria - called Acinetobacter - that are similar to brain cells.
He said: "When antibodies are made against the bacterium there are also auto-antibodies made against the brain tissue of the cow which then leads to the development of a neurological disease we call BSE."
The bacteria could be picked up from water, soil or feed, but a cow would have to be exposed to a lot of it to develop the disease, he said.
He admitted that his theories put him in a minority.
Prevailing opinion suggests that nvCJD disease is caused by proteins called prions, and that it is possible abnormal prions could be passed on through infected meat.
Professor Ebringer said his position may have been drowned out by the "prion noise", but he remained undeterred in pursuing his research.
"All discoveries start with a minority of one so that the person who has made the discovery has to convince his colleagues and his peers that his data and evidence can be submitted to peer analysis," he said.