Ministers reject advice to keep BSE from sheep

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The Independent Online
A Europe-wide ban on the use of spinal cord and spleen from sheep and goats in the human food chain, proposed by scientific advisers, has been rejected by European agriculture ministers.

The extended ban on the waste from sheep and goats was put to ministers by the European Commission under a special high-speed emergency procedure, on advice from World Health Organisation experts and the European Union's Scientific Veterinary Committee.

A report from the all-party Commons European Legislation Committee said yesterday: "The Commission argues that because it may be possible for sheep to be infected by BSE [Bovine Spongiform En-cephalopathy], producing a disease clinically indistinguishable from scrapie, action should be taken to prohibit tissues which are likely to contain the BSE agent to enter any food chain (human or animal)."

The Government admitted in March that a number of Britons had died from a new form of the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) apparently through exposure to BSE - almost certainly by eating infected food. So far, 15 cases have been recorded.

Although scrapie has existed in sheep for centuries, apparently without causing CJD in people, scientists have been increasingly worried that BSE is a more dangerous form of the disease, and that if it spread to sheep then they could, in turn, infect people.

The brains, spinal cords and spleen are the most infective tissues. The Government introduced measures to remove cat- tle brains and spines from the food chain in 1989. This was not introduced for sheep or goats.

Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, told the Commons committee that the European proposal went beyond UK legislation, and would require "the removal of spinal cord from sheep and goats over 12 months . . . and of spleen from all sheep and goats.

"It would thus necessitate changes in the way these animals are handled at slaughter and also in trading practices."

The Commons committee added: "Although the recovery of mechanically recovered meat from cattle has already been prohibited in the UK, the proposal, if adopted, would prevent plants at present producing mechanic- ally recovered meat from the vertebral columns of sheep and goats from continuing with this practice."

In the event, agriculture ministers decided in Brussels on Tuesday to reject the Commission proposal. It is not known how the UK cast its vote.

Mr Hogg banned the use of sheep and goat heads in the production of food for human consumption on 15 September, but the vertebral columns of sheep and goats are being used in the production of "mechanically recovered meat".

Mechanically recovered meat is blasted off the bones of carcasses, and is widely used in cheap burgers, sausages, pasties, pies and soups.

The defeat in Brussels might have been expected, because only the UK, France, Ireland, Portugal and The Netherlands - five out of the EU's 15 members - impose curbs on the use of "specified risk materials", such as the head and spinal cord, from higher-risk cattle. Mr Hogg told the Commons in a written reply on Wednesday night - after most MPs had left Westminster for the Christmas break - that the commission plan had been rejected.

"The council considered, but failed to agree on, a proposal banning the use of specified risk materials in the manufacture of animal feed and food-stuffs," he said. He did not reveal that ministers had been considering a ban on the use of sheep and goat spinal cord and spleen for human "foodstuffs".

The Commission has been asked to make "further proposals in this area" after taking advice from the EU Scientific Veterinary Committee.

The Ministry of Agriculture's latest progress report on BSE said that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee had urged ministers to consider the possibility of BSE in sheep, and "consider removing the brains from all sheep and goats over six months of age at slaughter". That proposal was enacted by the Heads of Sheep and Goats Order, in September.