Experts examine 'two new clusters of CJD deaths'

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Scientists from the National CJD Surveillance Unit are believed to be investigating in Doncaster and Glasgow the possibility of two more "clusters" of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the fatal brain disease caused by eating BSE-infected food.

Scientists from the National CJD Surveillance Unit are believed to be investigating in Doncaster and Glasgow the possibility of two more "clusters" of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the fatal brain disease caused by eating BSE-infected food.

The move comes amid heightened consumer fears over imported beef originating in France, where bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a growing problem. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is also investigating whether Britain's current measures to stop BSE entering human and animal food are "proportional and adequate" compared with the risks.

Experts from the surveillance unit in Edinburgh have travelled to Doncaster to interview relatives of a young woman who died there last month and see if there are any links between her case and that of Matthew Parker, who also lived in Doncaster and died of vCJD in 1997 aged 19.

Although the interviews are standard procedure when anyone dies of vCJD, to establish possible links with other victims - so far numbering 85 - Doncaster Central's MP ,Rosie Winterton, has called for the unit to investigate the possibility of a "cluster". Studies of vCJD deaths have found one in Queniborough, Leicestershire, and there is speculation about a cluster in Glasgow, which has been suspected informally since 1997.

However, Professor Peter Smith, an epidemiologist who sits on the independent Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) which advises the Government on BSE and CJD, said yesterday he was "not aware" of any clusters having been detected anywhere except Queniborough.

Meanwhile, the FSA will today release a draft report on the measures being taken in slaughterhouses to prevent BSE getting into human and animal food. It follows the publication last week of the Phillips inquiry into the disease and its handling by civil servants, which was damning of delays in introducing protection and the laxity of controls implemented.

The FSA said it would look at the ban on using cattle aged over 30 months for food, the ban on feeding any mammalian meat and bone meal to farm animals, and the removal of potentially infective parts from cattle, sheep and goats at slaughter, all measures introduced to increase the protection to humans from BSE.

Farmers have also alleged that potentially infected meat could be reaching Britain from France after live cattle were shipped to Ireland for slaughter then labelled "Irish beef" for export.

Sales of beef in France have slumped after a farmer was found trying to pass off a cow suffering from BSE to an abattoir. But it is legal for French farmers to export animals for slaughter and he had already sold the rest of the herd for food.

Farmers have called for such imports to be banned.Richard Haddock, 43, of the Farmers For Action group in Devon, said: "This may be a deliberate tactic by the French to ensure continued beef sales. We don't want the British public put at any risk, so we want the immediate suspension of all meat imports to this country.

"We have gone through a great deal of pain to contain our own BSE crisis, the last thing we want is to inherit someone else's. Why should our beef industry be destroyed by imports that don't meet our standards?"

The Conservative MEP for South West England, Neil Parish, said: "Our farmers are penalised again and again while French beef, possibly infected with BSE, is imported into the UK."

A spokesman for the French embassy in London said France exported live cattle to Ireland for pedigree stock purposes but not for consumption.

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