Although the number of BSE cases reported in Britain is more than 20 times higher than anywhere in the world, with 3,161 cases reported in 1998 and more than 1,040 so far this year, the EU has not required that beef for export to Europe be tested with any of three clinical tests validated by the European Commission (EC).
The father of one victim of "new variant" Creutfeldt-Jakob Disease (v- CJD) caused by BSE, said that the lack of testing left him "speechless". Roger Tomkins, whose daughter, Clare, died in 1998 from the disease, said: "I'm amazed: if there's such a test, it's in everybody's interest to identify the animals incubating the disease and get them out of the way as soon as possible."
The tests would be used to identify cattle in slaughterhouses which have BSE but no symptoms. Such animals are the iceberg beneath the tip of reported cases: a scientific analysis in 1996 showed that for every BSE case reported, there were roughly 40 sub-clinical cases which would go undetected into food.
An expert at the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), which lobbies on behalf of the meat industry, said that the use of a test would help revive the export market, which stood at pounds 500m annually before the Government announced a link between BSE and v-CJD in March 1996. "Having a test would be helpful, particularly in Germany where people are more nervous about BSE than in the rest of Europe," said John Pratt, veterinary adviser to the MLC. "Once we have a test that is as foolproof as possible, we would press for its wider use."
But a number of tests have been trialled. Last year, the EC carried out an experiment in which four companies with tests were sent unidentified samples, some from animals showing BSE and others from New Zealand-born animals free of BSE. The results published last month showed that three of the companies - Enfer from Ireland, Prionics from Switzerland and CEA from France - scored 100 per cent in identifying both groups. Further tests with diluted solutions from the two groups were also carried out, with similar results: the Enfer test, which uses a system developed by Proteus International from Macclesfield and can be carried out in four hours, scored perfect marks with a solution diluted by a factor of 30.
Arthur Rushton, chief operating officer of Proteus International, said: "The question is, why aren't people taking this up? From the scientific point of view it's hard to say what more is needed. These tests work."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: "We are looking at possible diagnostic tests, but we need to look at them carefully before deciding how to use them. The tests results are important, but are only one step."
At the MLC, Mr Pratt said: "The question is which tissues you should test for sub-clinical BSE - it seems to migrate from the gut to the nerves, to the spinal column and then to the brain."