Animal feed ban to halt spread of BSE

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The Independent Online
After sheep and cattle, could pigs and chickens be the next creatures to get some form of mad animal disease through cannibalism? The Government is soon to ban feeding pigs and chickens with waste from their own species. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, asks whether the action is timely - or out of proportion.

Farmers will be banned next year from their longstanding practice of making pigs and poultry into cannibals by eating recycled wastes from their own species, according to Jack Cunningham, the minister of agriculture.

The measure, announced in a written Parliamentary answer, is intended to "remove any risk" of pigs and chickens developing their own version of BSE or scrapie. Yet Mr Cunningham did not refer to it in a Parliamentary debate yesterday on beef.

Under the plan, pig swill could not contain any pig remains, and poultry could not be fed with high-protein rations made of poultry and feather meal.

The fact that this happens at all may come as a rude shock to anyone unused to the factory farming prevalent in British intensive farming. But it was a root cause of BSE, which became epidemic in British cattle after diseased cattle were used to make feed for calves, creating a feedback loop.

The decision follows advice from the Government's advisory committee, Seac, that diseases like BSE are "an example of a random event ... which in theory could occur in any species with a PrP gene". This gene instructs the body to make the PrP protein, which in BSE-like diseases becomes malformed and forms plaques in the brain, followed by death.

Both pigs and chickens have PrP genes, though BSE has only ever been passed experimentally to pigs, while claims by the scientist Harash Narang to have identified it in chickens have been dismissed by independent scientists who checked samples from his work.

Seac said the chances of the same happening with other meat species was small "but cannot be completely discounted".

There are 7.5 million pigs farmed in Britain, and more than 76 million chickens.

Stephen Dealler, an independent expert in BSE, said last night: "The difference these days is that any process which is dangerous in agriculture affects almost the whole population. It's almost like pharmaceuticals - you have to be sure it's safe before you introduce or change something, because it affects so many people."

He said that the decision appears to make sense but that its timing seemed odd. "There's no research or other evidence that has come out publicly which we didn't know five years ago. I can't help feeling there's something else going on underneath all this."

The Government has yet to settle issues such as how else to dispose of the wastes without polluting water courses and farms. Dr Cunningham said he would consider alternative routes for disposal before legislating.