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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
BSE mix-up lab shifts blame
Sheep
There is a 'theoretical risk' of BSE in sheep
The scientist at the centre of a mix-up which led to cows brains being used for a study on BSE in sheep has blamed a separate government laboratory for part of the blunder.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Farming Today programme, Professor Chris Bostock said the government's VLA veterinary lab had sent him an e-mail admitting mistakes had been made.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has suffered immense embarrassment over the mix-up with Margaret Beckett having to defend herself against accusations she tried to "bury" the news.

It was hoped Prof Bostock's study of samples of 3,000 sheep brains would find whether a BSE-like agent was present in the national flock.

The results of the study suggested up to 1% of the flock had been affected.

Contamination concerns

But last-minute checks showed the scientist he was actually mistakenly testing cows brains.

The professor told Farming Today that last December he was concerned some of the sheep brains might have been slightly contaminated.

But the government's veterinary lab, the VLA, tested for cow contamination and told him there was none.

On discovering last week that the samples consisted entirely of cow material, he asked the VLA for an explanation.

Now Prof Bostock says he has received an e-mail admitting the VLA had tested the wrong samples when giving him the all-clear.

Timing allegations

He maintains he could have known the truth a year ago and stopped the 217,000 study.

The Government's Chief Veterinary Officer, Jim Scudamore, said a number of critical mistakes had been made.

He said: "One thing we are having is an independent audit that is going to have a look at everything.

"It's going to have to follow the material right through and check the audit trail from the time the brains were collected to today, so that we can see where we are and what we have got.

He said the mistakes appeared to be in the way the samples were recorded and handled.

"To put it in perspective, this is material collected in 1990. It's a long time it's been held in the laboratory."

It has already been alleged by a newspaper that the government knew there was a problem with contamination three months before last week's announcement.

Prof Bostock's disclosure is likely to contribute to the pressure on Ms Beckett.

An investigation is under way to discover how the sheep and brain tissue samples became mixed up at the Institute of Animal Health laboratory in Edinburgh.

The Conservatives have urged Ms Beckett to make an emergency statement to the Commons about the possible risks of BSE in sheep, described as "theoretical" by the minister.

The Tories said the way the release of the news had been handled "beggared belief", while the Liberal Democrats said Ms Beckett had "a lot of awkward questions to answer".

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Tim Hirsch
"The blunders mount up"
Professor Chris Bostock, Institute of Animal Health
"It's a devastating discrepancy to be faced with"
Jim Scudamore, Chief Veterinary Officer
"The system has got to be looked at"

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See also:

20 Oct 01 | Health
FSA admits error over baby food
18 Oct 01 | UK
Sheep BSE research 'flawed'
28 Sep 01 | UK
Q&A: BSE in sheep
09 Feb 01 | UK
UK condemns BSE secrecy
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