Government `jumped gun on beef ban'

BSE: Scientists say decision to ban T-bone steaks was political as tempers flare at inquiry into cover-up of disease
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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT ministers had decided to ban the sale of beef on the bone before they received the scientific advice that they say made the ban justified, it emerged yesterday.

At a meeting last year between Jack Cunningham, who was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and his senior advisers, the decision was taken to prepare the groundwork for banning beef on the bone as a political measure designed to reassure the public that everything possible was being done to protect the human food chain.

The Government has always insisted that its ban on beef on the bone last December was based on the latest scientific advice from its independent Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac). It now appears that it had made up its mind before it had received that advice.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food confirmed yesterday that there was an "anticipatory meeting" between Mr Cunningham, Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, Sir Kenneth Calman, the former chief medical officer, and Sir John Pattison, chairman of Seac.

The meeting took place before Seac presented its advice to ministers suggesting that a beef-on-the-bone ban was just one of three possible options that the Government could adopt after new research on the risks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) infecting cattle bones.

Seac's latest advice, published yesterday, said that the risks last year from beef bones was minute and was now even smaller, but it refused to recommend the lifting of the year-old ban on T-bone steaks, oxtail and ribbed beef.

Sir John said he would not be surprised if the Government decided to lift the ban on the sale of beef on the bone before too long but argued that the decision was for ministers to make "based on the science".

"It's now 12 months on and we see the continuing decline of the BSE epidemic," Sir John said. "The risk was very small last year and now it's about a half or a third less than it was last year, which is negligible compared to what it was in the 1980s."

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, said yesterday: "Clearly the time is coming when we can lift the domestic ban on beef on the bone. I hope to have something to say reasonably soon."

Sir John said that there was a possibility of about "one or two" cattle infected with BSE entering the human food chain next year which would have developed symptoms of the disease within the first 12 months of life had they not been slaughtered first.

These one or two cattle - out of more than 2 million to be slaughtered next year for human consumption - carry the greatest risk of being infected with BSE in the bones but Sir John emphasised that the number is only an estimate.

"It might also be zero. If it is not zero and if we need to worry about one or two cattle then what we were doing in the past has seeded a large number of cases of it [the human] disease," Sir John added.

At present there have been 32 cases of new variant CJD, the human form of BSE, and scientists have little idea about the future course of the epidemic. Professor Peter Smith, a Seac member responsible for predicting the scale of the epidemic, said: "The next few years are going to be critical in terms of assessing the risk to the human population."

Seac yesterday also recommended that human spleens used for making a medical diagnostic test should in future be sourced from countries with no BSE. Sir John said it was important to minimise the risk of injecting material from a CJD patient into a large number of people.