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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Sheep BSE 'worst case' plans outlined
Flock of sheep
BSE has never been found in sheep
Forty million sheep could be slaughtered if the national flock were to become infected with BSE, under plans drawn up by the UK Government.

So far, no cases of the equivalent of mad cow disease have been discovered in sheep and there is currently no suggestion that infection will break out.

But the government has issued a contingency plan in case infection occurs in the future, to avoid being "wrong-footed" as happened over BSE.


In the past, there is no doubt in my mind that information like this would have been very tightly suppressed because of the fears of food scares

Elliot Morley
Agriculture minister
The plan includes a worst-case scenario in which the eating of lamb would be banned, and the entire UK flock of up to 40 million sheep would be destroyed.

The whole programme would be 10 times the size of the foot-and-mouth slaughter.

Agriculture minister Eliot Morley said it was only fair that the public were aware of what contingency planning had been made.

"In the past, there is no doubt in my mind that information like this would have been very tightly suppressed because of the fears of food scares. But we should trust the public.

Phillips' report

"You have to look at the absolute worst-case scenario, and it is fair to say that the idea of slaughtering the whole UK flock is at the very extreme end of that."

The decision to publish the action plan was a response to a key criticism in Lord Phillips' report on the BSE crisis, published in October 2000.

Elliot Morley
Agriculture minister Elliot Morley said the public should be trusted
It said ministers in the previous Conservative government had failed to think the unthinkable - that the fatal cattle disease might spread to humans.

When the unthinkable happened, in 1996, the government was "wrong-footed", and the result was panic, said the report.

The current government stresses there is no suggestion the national flock will become infected with BSE, but says it is now thinking the unthinkable, and sharing its thoughts with the public.

Theoretical possibility

The plan warns that there is a theoretical possibility that BSE could be passed to, and among, sheep.

It says that in sheep, BSE would appear to behave like the sheep disease scrapie and therefore could be passed between animals in the same way.

Mr Morley told an earlier news conference: "Sheep have been given BSE by feeding them infected BSE brain tissue.

Cow suffering BSE
"Theoretically", BSE could pass from cows to sheep
"So, if it can be done under laboratory conditions, we have to take the precautionary principle and look for the possibility that it is in the national flock."

A surveillance programme is actively looking for signs of BSE in the national flock, by testing the brains of sheep with scrapie.

However, it has not so far been possible to sample large numbers of sheep.

The plan states the reason for this "is because of the probable under-reporting of scrapie".

"Not all reported cases are suitable for testing and the rapid biochemical methods of differentiating between BSE and scrapie have not been sufficiently well developed to distinguish between BSE and some strains of scrapie."

No evidence

National Farmers' Union Deputy President Tim Bennett told BBC News 24 he was "hopeful" that BSE would never be found in sheep.

"We have been looking since the 1980s to see if BSE is in sheep and we have found no evidence whatsoever.


It would wipe out the hill and uplands of this country

Tim Bennett
NFU
"We are hopeful that we will never find it in sheep but it's important we have a contingency plan just in case.

"Sheep eat very little feed - they would have been exposed to very little or none of the exposed feed in the 1980s."

Mr Bennett said if BSE was found the consequences of the slaughter would be catastrophic.

"It would wipe out the hill and uplands of this country."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
NFU Deputy President, Tim Bennett
"The encouraging news is that we have not found BSE in sheep"
Animal health minister, Eliot Morley
"There is no reason for people not to eat sheep meat"

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28 Sep 01 | UK
09 Feb 01 | UK
13 Feb 01 | Business
05 Jan 01 | Europe
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