'Mad cow disease' may have spread to chickens

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The Independent Online
Startling evidence that BSE may have spread to chicken is being examined by government scientists, an investigation by the Independent on Sunday has discovered. Ministers stress that they are taking seriously the evidence - which could spark a new crisis for the meat industry - and insist that: "The days of cover-up are over."

The Ministry of Agriculture has been examining the brains of two hens suspected of having a BSE-type disease for the past two months and plans to bring in an independent scientist for a second opinion. They were sent to the ministry by the BSE scientist, Dr Harash Narang.

The news follows Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham's decisions to extend full "mad cow" controls for sheep and to block imports of European beef not subject to them. On Tuesday a new Cabinet committee on food safety will meet for the first time.

David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who will chair the committee, said yesterday: "Jack Cunningham is introducing new openness at the ministry and he and I will ensure that there is no cover-up. Obviously it is too early to say whether BSE has spread to chicken, but we would be foolish not to take the possibility very seriously."

The ministry's position contrasts sharply with its reaction under the previous administration. When Dr Narang first voiced fears about the disease in chicken earlier this year, it tried to force him to surrender the brains before he had even tested them.

In a series of threatening and bullying letters, obtained by the Independent on Sunday, the Assistant Chief Veterinary Officer, Kevin Taylor, questioned his truthfulness and "probity" and warned that he could be subject to "civil action for damages" by agricultural businesses. Dr Narang adds that a ministry official also told him he could be "arrested".

He was first alerted when a farmer from Kent told him that one of his hens was unable to keep its balance. The hen was observed and videoed for several weeks, shaking, staggering and exhibiting other symptoms typical of mad cow disease. Dr Narang examined it - and a hen from South Wales with similar symptoms - and found "very strong evidence of a spongiform encephalopathy".

The meat and bonemeal feeds thought to be behind BSE were also fed to chickens, but Dr Narang cannot yet be sure whether what he found is BSE or a related disease. He adds he has since had several reports from farmers of hens with similar symptoms.