BSE team's horror find

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AN INDEPENDENT team investigating "mad cow disease" was "horrified" to discover in 1988 that the Ministry of Agriculture was allowing blatantly diseased animals to be used to make human and animal food, they said yesterday.

Professor Sir Richard Southwood, who chaired the four-man working party which was the first to examine the risks posed to human by "mad cow disease" or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), said that he recalled being told cows showing signs of the illness had their heads cut off with a chain saw once they reached an abattoir.

But it was not this detail which shocked them, he said: "We were mostly horrified that the rest of the animal was going into the food chain," he told the BSE Inquiry in London on the third day of public hearings. Just over two weeks later, new regulations forced the complete destruction of diseased animals. But the four men who had first drew up recommendations aimed at curbing the BSE epidemic in cattle said they were constantly thwarted by a cost-cutting climate in which science funding was being cut back, and civil servants were apprehensive about the cost of implementing safety measures.

They also criticised the failure of the government and local authorities to police their preventative measures - such as banning meat and bone meal from being fed to cattle - which could have shortened the span of the epidemic.

Sir Richard said: "It seems that the ban was not really effective until 1993, thereby extending the epidemic by nearly five years."

They also found scientific experts in disarray, with centres of expertise being shut down so that there were only a limited number of independent experts outside government who could provide advice.

Sir Richard recalled that in assessing the risk posed to humans, "We knew that MAFF were anxious and had a marked tendency to be `optimistic'."

However, the four members of the committee said yesterday that even with hindsight, they would not change their broad recommendations. But other members - significantly, Sir Richard - disagreed: "I wouldn't ban beef on the bone," he said later. "I would inform people about the relative risks."