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Friday, 27 October, 2000, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
BSE expert Hugh Pennington

Politicians, civil servants and the British public are still examining the conclusions, criticisms and recommendations of Thursday's report into the BSE crisis.

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.

We put a selection of your questions about the report to Professor Pennington

To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:


Mark Leigh, Scotland: The link between BSE and vCJD is accepted - so what is the scientific opinion on the likely scale of the problem moving forward? How many more cases of vCJD can the nation expect, are any particular age groups at risk, when will we know we are "out of danger"?

Professor Hugh Pennington: This is a difficult question to answer because there is a lot of ignorance in this area. One thing we can be certain of is that there will be more cases of vCJD but how many is uncertain. We don't know whether we're at the mid-point of the epidemic, which is the optimistic view, or whether we're just at the beginning of an epidemic. We don't know what the incubation period of the disease is yet, that is the period between exposure to the BSE agent and actual development of the disease. If we had that figure then we could make more accurate projections. We will only find that out by watching what happens. The age groups that are at risk have mainly been young people in the mid-teens to mid-forties age group.

Neil Benson, UK: Do you think enough government resources are being devoted to find a cure or treatment in case an epidemic does strike?

Professor Hugh Pennington: Very large sums have gone in the last two or three years into research in all areas of vCJD and I think that it's got to the point where it's not the money that's short - it's the lack of ideas. The trouble is that this is a very difficult scientific problem and some of the best brains in the world have grappled with it for many years.

Julie, UK: In the light of the report apparently suggesting that the scientific uncertainties about BSE were not clearly communicated to the public, why have uncertainties about the possibility of transmission via milk not been clearly communicated too? If HIV can be transmitted to an infant via breastfeeding, then surely, logically, one cannot say that the same is not possible via cow's milk to humans, especially as the BSE agent appears to withstand pasteurisation.

Professor Hugh Pennington: As far as we can tell, evidence has shown us that the agent does not occur in milk

Peter Wilson, UK: What hotspots exist around the country for NV CJD, the Leicestershire one is being talked about now but I believe Kent has some too, what reasons can you suggest for these clusters?

Professor Hugh Pennington: I think the Leicestershire site is, in a sense, the clearest cluster but the disease is not evenly spread across the country. I think the Kent cluster is related to other kinds of CJD primarily, but at the moment we can only speculate as to the reasons for that cluster.

Marcus Oliver, UK: I edited one of the three national agricultural weeklies throughout the 1980s (Farming News) and recall the total refusal of the animal feed compounders to declare ingredients for their products - on grounds of commercial confidentiality. Should not MAFF have enforced such declarations so that farmers could have chosen which products to use? With full information, I contend, many would have objected or turned to alternatives rather than use recycled cattle and sheep materials.

Professor Hugh Pennington: I think in those days MAFF would have been unlikely to challenge commercial confidentiality arguments. Fortunately, there's a big debate going on now about labelling, about information and about openness. It's all very well to say in hindsight that MAFF should have been more open, they should have been, but they weren't.

David Rampley, UK: Who gave the animal feed manufacturing companies permission to use meat in food destined for plant eating animals and why haven't they, or the feed manufacturers been asked to explain themselves?

Professor Hugh Pennington: Well, I suppose they didn't ask for permission because they didn't need it. This is a practice that had been going on for some generations. What nobody imagined was that it would transmit a disease such as BSE.

Don Pearce, England: Renderers of cattle remains and farmers have contaminated farm land (for a limited period by the burial or cremation of infected cattle) yet I believe cattle still graze these sites? Is this not dangerous? Are we not re-infecting herds, since I thought PRIONS were virtually indestructible.

Professor Hugh Pennington: Although prions are tough, they do perish eventually. The issue of contamination of land and reinfection of animals was one that was gone over a lot about ten years ago and the worry then was that BSE might behave like scrapie, where it is thought that there is an environmental risk. It has never been shown with cattle and the fact that the number of infected animals is coming down very satisfactorily would strongly suggest that there isn't an issue about the contamination of ground.

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See also:

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
29 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
BSE risks played down
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