BSE safety controls dropped

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Britain has quietly scrapped safeguards against BSE-infected meat getting into food, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Britain has quietly scrapped safeguards against BSE-infected meat getting into food, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The Government's official advisers have warned that the move - ending a six-year ban on potentially dangerous offal from calves - could increase the risk that people will develop the human form of mad cow disease. Ministers believe that it will pave the way to Britain resuming its highly controversial exports of live calves.

The unpublicised relaxation of controls has shocked independent scientists, and flies in the face of the conclusions of the Phillips report into the BSE crisis, published on Thursday, that "precautionary measures" should be taken to protect human health.

Despite the report's repeated calls for greater openness, Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, did not mention the change in his statement on the report to the House of Commons. His shadow, Tim Yeo, who is to write to Mr Brown to protest, said the failure to publicise the move "showed that the culture of secrecy continued to reign".

The ending of the ban on calves' offal was brought about by the Specified Risk Material (Amendment) (England) Regulation 2000, brought into force at the beginning of this month by the new Food Standards Agency. No public announcement was made at the time. Under the regulation, the thymus - a gland near the base of the neck - and intestines of calves under six months are allowed into the food chain for the first time since November 1994.

The change has been made as a result of a new European Union rule which bans the use of "specified risk materials" from cattle, sheep and goats that might be infected by BSE. The EU rule excludes offal from calves under six months, and Britain's safeguards, the agency says, have now been "brought into line" with it.

The official Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has advised that the changes could bring "a slight increase in risk" to British consumers. But it says that this will be "outweighed" by the fact that meat imported from Europe will have been subject to tighter safeguards.

The agency admits, however, that there is no reason why Britain - where BSE is most rampant - should not continue to have tighter rules than the rest of Europe. A spokesman said that the agency's board, which meets in Cardiff on 8 November, could insist on reinstating the ban on calves' offal, but that this was "most unlikely". This contrasts with Lord Phillips' insistence, when launching his report last week, that "both domestic and European legislation needs to be reviewed to ensure that precautionary measures can be taken to protect human health in a situation of uncertainty".

Independent experts suspect that the bans - the only ones on food from calves - have been scrapped to prepare for the resumption of live calf exports to Europe. Both the agency and the Meat and Livestock Commission told the Independent on Sunday that the move was a welcome step towards resuming the trade, and that ministers believed they would now be able to look at calf exports again.

Dr Erik Millstone, a senior lecturer at Sussex University's Science Policy Research Unit, said scrapping the bans would "increase the risk that people will be infected", and called for their reinstatement. He called the agency's reasoning "bizarre". Iain McGill, director of the Prion Interest Group, said the agency had disregarded the "precautionary principle" laid down in Lord Phillips's report.

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