BSE moves as beef sales fall further acts to calm BSE fears Move made to calm 'mad cow' fears

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Science Correspondent

The Government tried yesterday to calm fears about "mad cow" disease by meeting consumer groups, as figures indicated that beef sales had fallen further.

It said research disclosed in the Independent yesterday, which shows the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), almost certainly cannot be passed to humans, was "interesting and encouraging".

But Kenneth Calman, the Government's chief medical officer, said the paper, to be published on Thursday in Nature magazine, offered "interim findings" which needed further research.

Representatives of consumer groups including the Consumers' Association, the National Food Alliance and independent scientists who have called for a BSE inquiry, met government representatives in London to discuss fears about consumer safety raised by the latest scare. Some people fear that eating BSE-infected beef could lead to the human form of the condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

Such fears have led to more than 1,000 schools taking beef and related products off their lunch menus in the past fortnight. And sales of beef in shops and supermarkets have dropped 15 per cent in the two weeks to 9 December, said the Meat and Livestock Commission. Overall sales in November were down by 5 per cent on 1994.

Representatives from about 20 consumer and catering organisations were invited to yesterday's meeting, the first of its kind, hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Jeannette Longfield, co-ordinator of the National Food Alliance, who attended, said: "We thought we might be told something startling and new but basically they just wanted to talk to us because they felt under siege with all the current publicity about BSE. Maybe if anything good comes of it, it is the realisation that you can't do all this stuff with scientists and not involve consumer groups very early on."

A Ministry of Agriculture spokesman said the new research findings, from Professor John Collinge, at St Mary's Hospital Medical School, in London, were not brought up at the meeting because they were not yet published and no one asked about them. The findings, based on tests on genetically engineered mice with human genes, show that the agent which triggers BSE in cattle is almost certainly incapable of jumping the "species barrier" into humans.