'Cow-to-cow' BSE warning

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The Independent Online
The scientist who warned three years ago that BSE could be transmitted from cow to calf, yesterday cautioned consumers that the disease can also be spread from cow to cow.

Professor Richard Lacey, the Leeds University scientist whose theories on the origins and spread of the BSE infection in cattle have been a constant source of contention with government experts, said he has been vindicated by the latest statements on transmission of the disease to calves.

Evidence revealed last Thursday, which identified a new route of infection from cow to calf, appears to endorse Professor Lacey's previously ignored hypothesis.

But yesterday, as German politicians renewed their calls for strict bans on British beef and beef by-products, the professor warned that it is only a matter of time before government scientists confirm his further contention that the infection can be spread from animal to animal.

"I first published papers indicating that BSE could be passed from cows to their calves three years ago. There is now a huge variety of evidence but most important is the material published by the Ministry [of Agriculture] which was produced in properly controlled experiments," said Professor Lacey.

Until last week, the orthodox view among government scientific advisers was that BSE was spread by contaminated feed only. Although the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food has accepted that vertical transmission of the disease (from cow to calf) is possible, it still does not accept the potential for horizontal infection (from one cow to another).

If Professor Lacey is right again, the implications for the farming industry could be appalling, with fields and pastures having to be set aside and sterilised to prevent the spread of BSE; and the costs involved in eradicating the infection could be between pounds 15 and pounds 20 billion, he believes. "Millions of cows will need to be slaughtered, adequate compensation provided to farmers and new territories for clean herds found. I calculate that it will be the equivalent of an extra 3p in the pound on income tax for a number of years to come."

Yesterday, Baerbel Hoehn, agriculture minister for the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, demanded the restoration of the EU "strict ban" on British beef and its by-products.

She was supported in her demands by German Agriculture Minister Jochen Borchert who is calling for agreements reached in Florence, designed to ease the ban on British beef exports, to be re-examined in the light of the new evidence linking the spread of BSE from mother to calf.

This move has brought cross party condemnation from British politicians. Euro-sceptic Conservative MP Bill Cash said: "Calling for a return to the total ban is an outrage and no doubt has been timed deliberately when the British Parliament is not sitting."

Labour's shadow Agriculture Minister, Gavin Strang, said that it was "worrying" that the EU might try to use the calf scare to re-negotiate the agreement on ending the beef crisis and using the latest development, "to reopen what was already a poor deal and make it even worse".

Bob Stevenson, president of the British Veterinary Association, argues that the disease is on the decline and no extra slaughter of cattle is required in the light of the new evidence of disease transmission.

Professor Lacey rebuts this assessment as dangerously complacent and is calling for sweeping changes in the Government's approach.

BSE scandal, page 21