October 11, 2008

Britain may back EU plan to relax rules on ‘mad cow’ cattle testing

Source of Article:  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article4922886.ece

Tough controls on beef that protect consumers from the human form of “mad cow” disease may be relaxed in Britain and across the Continent.

At present the brains of all cattle aged over 30 months are tested for BSE before the beef is allowed into the food chain. The European Commission has now put forward a plan to raise the testing age to 48 months from next January.

In the UK this would mean that beef from 106,000 cattle a year – about a quarter of all British beef produced annually – would be allowed on sale for the dinner plate without their brains being tested.

The Food Standards Agency is recommending the change to its board, which is to discuss the issue next Wednesday. Advice will then be sent to health ministers. Approval has already been given to the Commission by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa).

Professor Patrick Wall, chairman of Efsa and an adviser to the FSA on meat controls, told The Times that the tests on 30 month-old cattle were redundant. “In the past two years of testing for BSE in animals over 30 months there have been no positive cases in cattle under 42 months throughout Europe. My view is that the controls are not necessary and are not proportionate to the risk,” he said.

Papers published by the FSA disclose that scientific experts at Efsa and at the UK’s Veterinary Laboratories Agency have calculated that if the testing regime moved to cattle aged 60 months, let alone 48 months, less than one infected animal would be missed a year from all cattle slaughtered in 15 EU member states. The UK food watchdog is also satisfied that human health will be protected by removal of material from carcasses, which are most likely to carry infection.

Since November 2005, when compulsory brains-testing of cattle was introduced, 10 out of 1.29 million animals aged over 30 in the UK have been found infected with BSE. The youngest, in 2006, was 48 months. The animals were immediately condemned unfit to eat and removed from the food chain. The agency has urged the board to agree a move to testing at 48 months in the UK.

The move - 12 years after the Government admitted a link between eating BSE-infected beef and the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – has alarmed families who have lost loved ones from the incurable illness. The CJD Support Network is to lobby Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, and MPs to oppose it. Department of Health figures show that 164 people in the UK have died or are likely to have died from the human form of BSE and three are being treated for the condition.

Christine Lord, 50, who buried her son, Andrew Black, four days before Christmas last year, said: “I know the risk is significantly less but even if just one cow slips through the system that is one too many.” Her son, a 24-year-old TV producer, fell sick in 2006 but it took months before his condition was diagnosed. She said: “This policy 60,000Beef farmers in the UK is all about profit over people’s lives.”

Hilary Benn, the Rural Affairs Secretary, will not lift the testing age unless there is a favourable opinion from the FSA and health ministers, a spokesman at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

Stuart Roberts, the director of the

British Meat Processors Association, said: “There may be some concerns about public health but consumers must be reassured that the important health controls remain in place.”


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