Hogg dismisses concern over BSE risk to dogs

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The Government was insisting last night that scientific evidence gathered six years ago, which suggests that dogs can develop "mad cow disease", was not followed up or published because it was not important.

Yet in an apparently contradictory letter, sent to the League Against Cruel Sports last July, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) said that "research is in progress" to see whether dogs had genetic differences that might help them resist BSE infection.

As reported yesterday exclusively in The Independent, tests in 1991 on the brains of 444 hunting dogs by the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) in Weybridge, Surrey, found traces of a change in brain chemistry associated with bovine spongiform encepalopathy (BSE) and scrapie, the equivalent disease of sheep. Nineteen of the brains were affected.

The CVL is now conducting a post-mortem examination on an 11-year-old Norwegian dog which is thought to have died of BSE. The results are expected to be sent to Norway later this week.

But Maff said yesterday that the results of the 1991 tests had been inconclusive in showing whether the dogs had definitely contracted the disease. The brains showed "scrapie-associated fibrils" (Safs) rather than the "spongy" holes of advanced BSE or scrapie.

Dr Stephen Dealler, an independent critic of Maff, said: "Safs are always indicative of a spongiform encepalopathy - like BSE or scrapie. They are the first step before the holes in the brain turn up.

"If the animal dies of another disease in the meantime, it will have the Safs but not the spongiform holes."

The Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, insisted that there was no need for concern over the reports.

He said their disclosure "adds nothing to human knowledge", during a tour of North-east England which included a visit to a sausage factory in the marginal Stockton South constituency.

However, it emerged that the CVL did not carry out the logical follow- up experiment. This would have been to inoculate extracts from the dead animals' brains into laboratory animals such as mice, to see if they then developed a BSE-like disease.

But it was done with other animals to confirm the presence of BSE.

Nor was the work published, although at the time it would have been an important pointer which researchers from around the world could have examined and use to confirm that dogs do not catch BSE - or refuted.

A Maff spokesman said yesterday that this was because "we decided to concentrate our work into more important areas such as BSE and its relationship with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease [CJD, the human equivalent of BSE]".