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2001: Inquiries into BSE brain blunder

Two inquiries have been launched into the cause of a massive blunder that led to five years of research into the possibility of BSE in sheep being scrapped.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) admitted on Thursday that a mix-up at the research laboratory meant tests had been carried out on cows' brains and not sheep brains.

The results of the research, which cost 217,000, could have led to a mass cull of Britain's flock of 35 million sheep and lambs.

DNA checks at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist highlighted the error.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it would not be advising people to boycott lamb but its chairman Sir John Krebs did say: "I am absolutely stunned. It's a really serious setback for research in the area."

A spokesman for the Institute of Animal Health, where the research was carried out, stated: "Once it's a paste, a cow brain looks very like a sheep brain. That's no excuse - the samples should have been properly labelled - but you can't tell them apart just from their appearance".

Rural Affairs minister Margaret Beckett has been accused of burying the news because of the way it was released.


"It's a really serious setback for research"

FSA chairman Sir John Krebs

A message was put on the Defra website late on Thursday but did not mention cows, just stated there were "doubts about the validity of the original sample".

The Conservative party spokesman on rural affairs, Peter Ainsworth, said: "It beggars belief that it took these scientists four years to work out that the sheep brains they were investigating were in fact cows' brains."

Rural Affairs minister Elliot Morley tried to turn the news round saying: "If anything, I think consumers should be reassured that the quality control checks showed there were flaws in the tests, and we would have been much more embarrassed as a government if we'd taken some very drastic action, in relation to sheep, on the basis of those flawed tests."

In Context
The report carried out by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, found there was "no formal documented quality system" covering the work at the Institute of Animal Health and that record keeping was "inadequate".

The report by independent risk assessors Risk Solutions stated: "Poor labelling of the samples combined with poor control of storage provided opportunity for substitution to occur."

In January 2002 a research team at Imperial College, London concluded sheep posed a greater theoretical risk of spreading BSE to humans than cattle - the findings were heavily criticised by farmers.


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