Ministers consider ban on eating lamb as BSE sheep scare grows

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A complete ban on eating lamb and the slaughter of thousands or even millions of sheep might be imposed if BSE, or "mad-cow disease", is found to be widespread in the national flock, the Government said last night.

A complete ban on eating lamb and the slaughter of thousands or even millions of sheep might be imposed if BSE, or "mad-cow disease", is found to be widespread in the national flock, the Government said last night.

The move is part of a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food contingency plan. Another is that only sheep from breeds genetically immune to BSE and related diseases would be allowed on sale. But that could still lead to thousands of animals being killed.

The plans emerged after a Food Standards Agency (FSA) working party said urgent action was needed to produce a test to find out if BSE had passed into sheep through infected feed. A report yesterday by the FSA team, headed by its chairman, Sir John Krebs, echoed the scientific advisory committee, which says BSE in sheep could be masked by scrapie, a disease similar to BSE but which does not seem to infect humans.

Sir John said: "Of the 40 million sheep in Britain, some 4,000 do succumb annually to another disease, scrapie, which appears not to have any human health risk. It is possible, however, that some of these animals are actually suffering from BSE. We simply do not know."

Only a few hundred scrapie cases are reported annually, but research shows that many more animals die while incubating the disease.

Sheep have been artificially infected with BSE in the laboratory. So far it has not been identified in farm sheep, but only 200 animals have been tested. The present test for BSE takes up to two years and costs more than £20,000 a time. The FSA called for a faster and more reliable test to be developed.

The issue is important because, unlike in cattle, BSE in sheep is not confined to specific organs and tissues such as the brain and spinal cord. Sheep with BSE would have to be destroyed, and no part of their carcases allowed into the human food chain. At present, the potentially most infective tissues - the brain, spine and various organs - are removed and not used.

A spokesman for the National Farmers' Union said farmers would have to face up to the "terrifying" prospect of entire flocks being destroyed if BSE was discovered in sheep.

BSE, which many scientists and the recent Phillips report suggest originated in cattle rather than being derived from scrapie, could have passed over to sheep through infected animal feed.

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