Graves of 6,000 mad cows revealed

The Government was forced to admit last night that for the past six weeks it has suppressed a list, demanded in Parliament, of the burial sites of 6,117 cattle infected with mad cow disease.

The admission was forced after The Independent obtained a copy of the list, which it is publishing today. Some of the sites may pose a risk to human health, because the disease agent causing bovine spongiform encepalopathy (BSE) could leak into water supplies.

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture minister, was furious at the list's suppression, after having requested it from Douglas Hogg, secretary of state for agriculture, early in March, and again on April 16. In March he was told the data was not centrally held, and could only be gathered at "disproportionate cost". His letter earlier this month received no reply.

Staff at Mr Strang's office called the news "outrageous". Mr Strang said it was "very disappointing", adding that "the real issue now is to ensure that all the steps are taken to monitor, and make sure that there's no risk to human health."

Some of the 59 sites listed are now being studied by the Environment Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), to see whether the BSE-infected cattle pose any risk to human health. Though the heads were removed before burial, the spinal cords - which are highly infectious - were not.

If the BSE disease agent, a protein known as a "prion", were to get into water it could be infectious. Scientists are increasingly confident that the "new variant" of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans is caused by exposure to the BSE agent.

The full list was compiled by the Environment Agency and passed to Maff on March 14, four days after Mr Strang clashed with Mr Hogg in the Commons. "We are surprised that Maff have taken so long to answer a Parliamentary Question," said a spokeswoman for the Agency.

Maff said it had had to cross-check some of the details and that it had wanted to release the list along with the risk assessment. "We wanted to give it to Mr Strang all in one go," said a Maff spokeswoman. "We would have sent it to him in a couple of weeks."

The 6,117 BSE-infected cattle were buried between 1988 and 1991 because there was not at the time sufficient incinerator capacity to dispose of the carcasses.

The National Farmers' Union said last night that it would demand a meeting with the agriculture minister on Friday to express concerns over the continuing ban on beef exports.

Where they are buried, page 8

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