Burger blamed over BSE death

A coroner opened up a legal minefield yesterday by ruling that beef products contaminated with "mad-cow disease" (BSE) caused the death of a young man from the new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

Geoffrey Burt, coroner for North Durham, returned a verdict of misadventure on Peter Hall, 20, who died in February of CJD despite being a vegetarian since 1992. Mr Burt said that on the "balance of probabilities" something like a beefburger eaten before 1990 caused the disease.

The verdict was significant because it did not rule the disease to be "natural causes", as it would be in its normal form, which usually affects people over 60. Instead, Mr Burt told the hearing, in Durham, that he felt misadventure was the appropriate verdict because the former student's death came about "through an outside course".

The decision leaves open the question of whether Mr Hall's parents could sue the manufacturers of any foods, or the Government, for failing to take sufficient action to keep the BSE agent out of the food chain.

After the hearing, his parents said they were "very pleased" with the outcome but it was "far too early" to consider pressing for compensation. Derek Hall said: "This has been a step in the right direction and is more ammunition to get things moving for a public inquiry." His wife, Frances, said: "We want the Government to recognise that this has been a problem for a lot of years and should have been dealt with much earlier. Our son died because of their mistakes."

However, James Ironside, of the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh, said: "This doesn't constitute proof of a link. It is a hypothesis, based on the epidemiological evidence. We need results from other experiments before we can definitely say that one causes the other."

He also disclosed that the number of suspected victims of the new CJD is slowly growing, according to figures from the unit. Five more suspected cases are under review, including that of a teenage girl in Scotland. There have been 12 cases in Britain in the past two years, with all the victims aged under 42.

Mr Hall, who was from Chester-le-Street, County Durham, was one of the 12. He had been vegetarian since he was 16 but his father said that before that time he had often taken a quick beefburger snack on coming home from school. And more often than not they had brisket on Sunday. Mr Burt said: "I am satisfied that it is more likely than not that Peter contracted this disease prior to 1990 through eating some form of contaminated beef product, such as a beefburger."

A Health Department spokesman said that a coroner's opinion did not constitute scientific fact.

"The verdict is misadventure. It's a contribution to the debate and you now know the coroner's opinion but it doesn't actually change anything material here."