The Prime Minister was forced to defend British beef in the Commons yesterday as calls grew for an independent inquiry into the risks posed to humans by mad cow disease
As Labour MPs and consumer watchdogs called for a separate investigation into whether mad cow disease could cause its human equivalent,John Major told MPs: "There is currently no scientific evidence that BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease] in humans. That issue is not in question."
Yet government reassurances appeared to be failing, as more than 1,150 schools announced that they have cut beef from lunch menus or are offering alternatives. And leading scientistsraised fears that industrial techniques used in abattoirs could still be spreading the infection into meat. The National Consumer Council urged tighter regulations for slaughterhouses to ensure that potentially dangerous offal did not slip into food.
Nigel Griffiths, Labour consumer affairs spokesman, said: "People are confused and they want to know whether or not they should be eating beef."
Sue Dibb, co-director of the independent watchdog, the Food Commission, said: "I think nobody is trusting what is coming out of government any more. The Government seems to be more interested in propping up the beef industry than admitting that there may be a risk, however small it may be."
She said she was not satisfied by the position of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), composed of eight independent scientists who advise the Government on BSE. "Being advisers means that the minister doesn't have to act on or publish their advice."
The Consumers' Association said an inquiry could help provide better information.
BSE was first identified in 1986, but the controversy over the risk to public health took on renewed life last week when Sir Bernard Tomlinson, a former government medical adviser, said he had stopped eating anything containing beef offal.
Scientists' fears about the risk posed by eating beef have begun to focus on procedures used in abattoirs to remove the brains and spinal cords - the most infectious parts of the animals - from carcasses.
Many abattoirs remove the spinal cord by cutting into the spine with a water-cooled circular saw, and scientists fear this could spread infective spinal material on to meat.
Schools in Avon, Cleveland, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Surrey, Staffordshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Wiltshire and West Glamorgan have taken beef off menus. At least 11 other areas have banned beef offal.
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