Beef on bone ban must stay, says health chief

HOPES FOR an early end to the beef-on-the-bone ban have been dashed by the new Chief Medical Officer, who has warned ministers that unboned beef could still pass "human BSE" to the public.

Professor Liam Donaldson's report to the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, will come as a serious blow to the beef industry, which was struggling to regain its pounds 500m export market after the ending last November of the European Union's ban on British beef.

Professor Donaldson's recommendation also presents a test of strength for Mr Brown, who has the final say on whether to continue the ban imposed 13 months ago. A decision by Mr Brown to lift the ban would echo the worst behaviour of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) in the BSE crisis earlier this decade, when it frequently rode roughshod over Department of Health recommendations.

Professor Donaldson, who was appointed in September, warns that there is still a danger of maternal transmission of BSE from cow to calf, and recommends that no immediate moves are made to lift the ban on sales of beef on the bone. He concludes that although the present risk from eating unboned beef is near zero, lifting the ban would introduce a risk, which he could not countenance.

In the past three years, 35 people in Britain have died of "new variant" Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, believed to have been caused by eating BSE- infected food. Most of the victims have been under 40, and scientists suggest that the source of the infection was food eaten before various offals were excluded from food in 1990. Nobody knows how many people will eventually succumb to the fatal disease.

The beef-on-the-bone ban was introduced in December 1997 after the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) reported that there was a very small risk of infection through the nervous tissues, called dorsal root ganglia, in the spinal column of joints of beef on the bone. But the committee did not directly recommend the ban: "Among our recommendations was to do nothing," one member insisted last night.

Professor Donaldson's more cautious approach has delighted Whitehall critics of Maff, which had threatened to shelve the proposal for an independent Food Standards Agency until it was rescued by the intervention of Tony Blair. Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House, said last night that a draft Bill to set up the agency will be published next Wednesday.

The Bill will allow a flat charge of about pounds 2 a week to be raised for its running costs from 600,000 food outlets. It should reach the statute book in July, around the time that the BSE inquiry is due to deliver its findings.

Professor Donaldson's report will be seen as evidence that he will be a champion for consumers' safety against pressure from the farming lobby, and that the Government is serious about tackling the Maff influence over food safety. In future, he will report to the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency.

The Chief Medical Officer's latest advice is not, however, based on any new scientific evidence. Seac met last weekbut the continuation of the ban was not discussed. The committee last considered the matter in December, after which Sir John Pattison, its chairman, said any decision about continuing the ban should be "based on the science" - which suggested that the initially small risk had shrunk further.

Ministers have yet to agree a response to Professor Donaldson's report, but senior Whitehall sources said Mr Brown was likely to announce the beef-on-the-bone ban will stay for the foreseeable future.

Though the number of BSE cases in Britain is falling, it is still higher than anywhere else in Europe. In 1998, there were 2,651 cases; the youngest animal to develop it was born in 1995 before new safety measures on farm feed were introduced.

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