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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 15:37 GMT
Labelling blamed for BSE blunder
Elliott Morley blames specimen labelling for the mix up
An inquiry into how UK scientists studying BSE in sheep spent years looking at cows' brains instead said the mistake was probably made by an Edinburgh laboratory wrongly labelling specimens.

A second report said that storage at the Institute of Animal Health lab fell below international standards.


The main problems appeared to have been the labelling and also the traceability of the samples at storage

Elliot Morley
Animal health minister
But the institute, paid by the government to carry out the study, said there was no clear evidence that it was to blame - and insisted that it remained a world class laboratory.

Animal health minister Elliot Morley released the reports into the affair at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Friday.

"The main problems appeared to have been the labelling and also the traceability of the samples at storage," he said. "That probably happened in the Institute of Animal Health at Edinburgh, although it could even have gone back to the rendering experiment before."

Public safety

The minister described the institute as "world class" and said that he had confidence in the quality and standard of its work. "This was an experiment that clearly went wrong," he said.

Six weeks ago researchers working for the institute said they had detected traces of BSE in what they thought were scrapie-infected sheep.

The researchers had spent three years studying what they thought were the prepared samples from 3,000 scrapie-infected brains collected in the early 1990s.

The results prompted some ministers to consider wiping out the entire sheep flock on the grounds of public safety.

But last-minute DNA tests showed that the scientists had been examining cow brains - sparking a major controversy over how Defra runs and monitors research it sponsors.

Institute's decision

Mr Morley said while it was the institute's decision to continue with the experiments, its own checks identified the problem.

"There were a series of checks, some of which did confirm it was bovine. We need to examine those particular tests and whether or not those tests are flawed in themselves."

Mr Morley said there had been no doubt over the final DNA tests conducted by government scientists that established the material as bovine.


The UKAS audit is full of errors and I have to take issue with their statement that the institute has no formal procedures - that's actually nonsense

Prof Chris Bostock
Director IAH
The conclusions of the audit by independent risk assessors Risk Solutions stated: "Poor labelling of the samples combined with poor control of storage provided opportunity for substitution to occur."

It found: "Present staff at the IAH, who carried out the 1997 experiments, were unsure about the labelling on the samples of brain pool material they found in the freezer."

Meanwhile, the second audit, carried out by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, found there was "no formal documented quality system" covering this work at the IAH and that record keeping was "inadequate".

But Professor Chris Bostock, director of the IAH, disputed the audit reports.

National plan

"I think the bottom line for me that comes out of these audit reports... is that they find no clear evidence for a mistake having been made at the institute," he said.

"If we consider the UKAS audit first, it is full of errors and I have to take issue with their statement that the Institute has no formal procedures - that's actually nonsense."

Mr Morley said that a national scrapie plan was being accelerated to "breed out" the sheep disease, which is related to BSE but not dangerous to humans.

Defra had been aware of the theoretical risk of BSE in the sheep flock since 1990 and ordered thousands of pounds to be devoted to research.

But government scientists are little further forward, with critics saying that the UK continues to be exposed to a potential health risk.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Richard Bilton
"Naturally occurring BSE has never been found in sheep"
Agriculture minister Eliot Morley
"There was always doubts about the providence of the brains"

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22 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
23 Nov 01 | Health
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