Buried BSE cattle pose health risk

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The Independent Online
The Government has allowed more than 6,000 cattle carcasses suspected to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to be buried in landfill sites across Britain - in direct contravention of its own regulations.

The move was last night condemned as a "health hazard" and "grossly irresponsible" by the Labour MP Helen Jackson, who has been campaigning for greater openness about the cattle-culling programme.

Because of fears that BSE could get into drinking water, or the food chain, both the Government and the European Union have insisted that the carcasses should be incinerated. As far back as June 1988, an official working party on BSE, chaired by Sir Richard Southwood, professor of zoology at Oxford University, recommended that "carcasses of affected animals should be destroyed".

In a 1995 "progress report" on BSE, the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF), Fisheries and Food said that since August 1988 all suspect cases of BSE had been compulsorily slaughtered and destroyed.

But in a Commons written reply to Gavin Strang, the Labour Party's spokesman on agriculture, on Thursday night, Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, said: "The total number of BSE suspect cases disposed of by landfill is approximately 6,120. This figure represents approximately 3 per cent of the total number of suspects slaughtered."

Mr Hogg said it was not possible to say how many BSE-suspect carcasses had been buried at specific landfill sites since the crisis first broke, "as a complete set of records is not held centrally. To provide a complete record could only be done at disproportionate cost". In other words, the ministry does not know where the carcasses are buried and has no intention of finding out.

Neither did Mr Hogg specify the date of burials, but he did tell Dr Strang that three BSE-suspect carcasses had been buried last year.

Asked by Dr Strang to list the methods of disposal that are permitted, compared with the methods at present in operation, Mr Hogg did not provide an answer to the question.

Mr Hogg did not say that no material from BSE suspects was allowed to be buried in landfill sites. However, a British government paper submitted to the EU before last year's Florence summit said that 57 legal instruments had been passed between June 1988 and May 1996, including "a requirement that all cattle which are suspected of having BSE are slaughtered and destroyed".

Early this morning, in a further twist to the story, a MAFF spokesman said that Mr Hogg had given wrong information in his answers. "There has been a mistake and a new reply will be published tomorrow," he said.

Last month, in a written Commons reply, Ms Jackson was told by the Agriculture minister Tony Baldry: "Cattle suspected of showing clinical signs of the disease are disposed of by direct incineration in plants contracted to MAFF."

Mr Baldry said that BSE suspects were not slaughtered under the over- 30-month scheme - the precautionary measure demanded by the EU as a prerequisite for lifting the ban on beef exports.

Ms Jackson subsequently raised the question of BSE burial in a Commons debate on 17 February. She was told by Roger Freeman, the Cabinet minister in charge of the cattle cull: "There are no mass graves in our countryside and there is no fear of disease."

t Another 15 people were reported yesterday to have come forward in Lincolnshire complaining of symptoms that could be caused by the E. coli 0157 bacteria, bringing the number of reported cases to 215.