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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 18:17 GMT 19:17 UK
Food safety expert Hugh Pennington answers your questions

As one of the UK's leading experts, Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University has spoken out on a range of food safety issues including the BSE crisis.

Fears are now growing that the human form of mad cow disease CJD may have been spread by contaminated baby food and school meals

Dr Robert Will - the head of the government's CJD surveillance unit - says that would explain why the disease seems to hit younger people. He believes that in the 1980s infected material could have ended up in school menu favourites such as sausages and burgers.

Professor Pennington believes the current CJD death toll could be just the tip of the iceberg.

"We've been exposed to the BSE agent in the past and so, in a sense, we have to prepare for perhaps thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of cases of CJD coming down the line."

Click here to listen to the forum.

Susan Edgar, England: My son normally has school dinners, but this morning he wanted me to make him a pack lunch, he never told me why. But I have just realised that he must have seen the news linking CJD to school meals. I want to know how to approach the topic with him so that he won't be terrified of school meals. Apart from burgers and sausages which other food types should he abstain from?

Prof Hugh Pennington: My answer to that is to say that school meals are very, very safe now. The problem that we've been considering in the last few days about CJD and BSE is about things that happened ten years ago and more when we didn't really understand BSE very well and when there was a risk to the public. Because of things that we did ten years ago and more recently, the food that we're eating now, from the BSE point of view, is perfectly safe. In fact, it's safer in Britain than in most other countries in the world. I think you can reassure your son that there is absolutely no risk from school meals for catching BSE.

Kate Eaton, UK: Could you explain why mechanically-recovered meat is used as an ingredient in baby food? I was under the impression that these products are very tightly regulated. We feel relieved that we opted for an organic diet for our baby son, but surely all baby food should be safe?

Prof Hugh Pennington: Mechanically recovered meat (MRM) is not used anymore in any kind of food. It was phased out about ten years ago when people realised that the nasty bits from animals that might contain the BSE agent, could be carried over in MRM. Therefore, you can be absolutely certain that there is none of it about now. It was available then because it was thought, not unreasonably perhaps, to be a source of protein.

Haroon Abbasi, United Kingdom: How important are a person's genetics in determining the risk of contracting CJD? Have all the people who are known to have contracted the disease to date been of a particular genetic type?

Prof Hugh Pennington: All of the people who have been looked at, and that's the majority of the unfortunate victims, have a particular type of gene that's worked with the BSE agent to cause CJD. This is found in 40% of the population and so far none of the other 60% seems to have come down with the disease. What we don't know is whether this is because only that particular type of person with that particular type of gene is susceptible to the disease or whether they develop the disease more quickly and sooner or later other people will get it. It all sounds rather grim but at the moment that's as much as we know about it.

J. Latto, England: Do you know how many exposures to infected meat you would need to be at risk of developing CJD?

Prof Hugh Pennington: Nobody has the faintest idea; all we can go on is circumstantial evidence and that is not very good. We don't even know whether people have contracted variant CJD by eating beef. It's just a supposition that because BSE contaminated beef was around in the mid and late 1980's and it seems likely that the people who are now falling ill were exposed to it, that we make the connection. However, nobody has formally demonstrated this, we don't know the circumstances of the risks these people were exposed to and that's been very difficult to work on because these events happened many years ago. The studies are very difficult to do, are taking a long time and are not showing any helpful results at the moment.

Ian Baldwin, England: The reason why cattle are slaughtered young is so that they will not show the disease, although it is still present. Can you deny this?

Prof Hugh Pennington: Well, we know that the animals take quite a long time to show the disease. Clearly, if you kill them before they get to their old age, they won't develop the disease, so in a sense that is right. What we do know is that as they develop, the agent in them which poses a hazard to people increases in amount, so there is a safety aspect involved in getting rid of animals as they get older.

Paul Phelps, Switzerland: What is the current statistical evidence that links CJD with specific age or socio-economic groups?

Prof Hugh Pennington: Well, so far all the cases of CJD are in relatively young people - the average age is around mid-20's. As far as other factors are concerned, I am not aware of any links or that any particular preponderance has been shown by statistical evidence that has so far been looked at.

David, USA (English): What about those who say that the initial government measures (BFO ban) were adequate and that the number of cases per year will remain steady? Is that unlikely now?

Prof Hugh Pennington: We don't know whether the number of cases is going to remain steady or not - one can only speculate about that. We don't know enough about the disease, we don't know how people became exposed to the agent in the 1980's, and we don't have any data to make any firm predictions at all. Clearly a lot of measures were taken in the late 80's and early 90's, which have stopped the BSE agent getting into the human food chain, and enabled BSE to rapidly decline in cattle.

Stephen Saines, Canada: I was rejected as a potential kidney donor to my uncle in the UK, even though I was well qualified from the bank of physical tests. The reason? My history included a cancer in remission. Upon my return to Canada, I was told that my cancer history has no bearing whatsoever on my applicability to donate in North America, but due to my time in the UK, and the exposure to CJD, I could donate neither blood nor an organ, even after my death. Does the CJD situation have bearing WITHIN the UK for organ and blood donation? Could it have a profound effect in the future? Is donated blood screened for CJD?

Prof Hugh Pennington: We can't screen blood for CJD because we don't have a method by which to do so. It may be that we never will have one because of the way the agent is distributed in the body. The situation regarding organ donation is really quite complicated as far as CJD is concerned. There is a difference between circumstances in the UK and North America. North America has taken a very strong line on people from Britain who have had blood transfusions and so on - they regard them as having been in a CJD environment and are playing absolutely safe. Within the UK, as far as I know, the kidney donation programme is not affected, although clearly people want to make absolutely certain that a donor has not died of a disease such as CJD.

Bob Hale, UK: The use of fertilizer manufactured from bovine material is banned for crops destined for consumption by farm animals and horses, but is not banned for crops destined for human consumption. Does this represent a potential source of ongoing CJD infection for humans?

Prof Hugh Pennington: There's no real evidence that this kind of practice is causing any harm to people.

Andrew Day, UK: Would you now say that British beef is 100% safe to eat?

Prof Hugh Pennington: One can never say that anything is 100% safe. All I can state is that British beef is safe to eat. It is probably safer than beef from other countries in Europe, which have BSE but not the strict controls that we have.

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See also:

13 Jan 98 | UK
Food expert warns of crisis
23 Oct 99 | Scotland
France 'risks BSE crisis'
21 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
CJD epidemic fear
16 Jul 00 | Health
School meals link to CJD deaths
15 Jul 00 | Health
CJD scientists probe abattoirs
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