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The BBC's Christine McGourty
"This is all based on laboratory work with mice and any new risk is purely theoretical"
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Professor Veterinary Public Health, Mac Johnston
"It reinforces the need for extra measures which have already been in force since the mid-nineties"
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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
European scrutiny of BSE research
cow at incinerator
Infected cattle were destroyed to control BSE
European Union scientists are to examine new research that suggests animals other than cattle could be infected with BSE without showing any obvious symptoms.

British food safety experts have joined the UK government in playing down the findings - but the EU's scientific steering committee wants to assess the study itself.

The research suggests that "prion" diseases such as BSE may be present in animals without them showing any symptoms and could be passed on undetected.

The study will be scrutinised by the UK government's own Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) next month.

One leading veterinary expert told the BBC that pigs and poultry should be screened "as a precautionary measure" following this latest scientific evidence.

But Professor Ian McConnell, director of research at Cambridge University Veterinary School and a member of SEAC says he does not expect any cases to be found.

British meat products are the safest in the world

Ben Gill, NFU

The study has raised fears that the diseases could find their way into the human food chain.

Precautionary measures

However, Professor McConnell told BBC News Online: "The policies that were put in place to protect the food chain still stand... I can't at this stage see a need to reassess that."

brain biopsy
79 cases of variant CJD have been recorded so far
The president of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, said consumers should not be put off buying meat.

"All the precautionary measures in the abattoirs for all species have been in place for some time and this gives the necessary comfort to the consumer that British meat products are the safest in the world," he told the BBC.

And Professor Sir John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, stressed that there was no need for people to change their eating habits.

"These results are important. They are adding to our knowledge of this very mysterious group of diseases, but there is no need at the moment for people to change their eating habits," he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

However Tory MP Dr Michael Clark, chairman of the Commons science select committee called on Agriculture Minister Nick Brown to make an immediate statement on the issue.

'Silent infection'

Prions are the infectious agents linked with BSE, and its human form, variant CJD.

Experiments carried out by Professor John Collinge, of St Mary's Hospital, London, found that prions could infect different species in the laboratory without the animals showing any sign of disease.

It had been thought that the species barrier prevented BSE from passing to different types of animals.

The research has raised fears that BSE could enter the human food chain by infecting pigs and poultry.

But Professor McConnell said people should not be alarmed about eating pork and chicken because existing public health measures would have dealt with any risk of infection.

"If you regard meat and bone meal, as everyone does, as the point source of the BSE epidemic, the fact that the practice of feeding these to animals we consume as food was banned some years ago would have dealt with both silent and non-silent infections," he said.

Professor McConnell says cattle are already being screened for evidence of "silent infection" with BSE - animals that carry the disease but appear healthy.

He believes the tests should be extended to other animals, including pigs and poultry, as a precautionary measure.

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See also:

29 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
BSE risks played down
01 Aug 00 | UK
Europe snubs British beef
17 Jul 00 | Health
Baby food firms deny mad cow risk
15 Jul 00 | Health
CJD scientists probe abattoirs
29 Jun 00 | UK Politics
BSE fears after cow infected
20 Jun 99 | BSE Inquiry
BSE: The long search for the facts
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