The Commission yesterday gave its support to a scheme that would allow exports of British beef from BSE-free cattle born after August 1996. But simultaneously, a study from Switzerland revealed that for every cow found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), 100 more may be harbouring a "silent" form of the illness.
If confirmed, the findings could deal a blow to hopes of reviving Britain's pounds 500m beef export industry. That was choked off in March 1996, after the previous government admitted a link between BSE exposure and the fatal human illness of "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (v-CJD).
The Swiss findings suggest that many cattle which now go into food, or are used to make animal feed, are in fact still infectious, even though they are "subclinical" - that is, showing no signs of the disease.
The meat from such animals could be infectious, some scientists believe. Professor John Collinge, a leading British expert in BSE and CJD, told the BSE inquiry last week: "It may be that there is rather more infectivity in muscle or other tissues in those [subclinical] animals, and that is why they do not have a brain disease."
It would also mean that any country which has had cases of BSE - which in Europe only excludes Italy - could have hundreds or even thousands of cattle which carry the disease, yet may not show it during their lives.
Professor Collinge said yesterday: "If there's a substantial degree of subclinical infection, it could affect other countries. But I think measures in the UK are adequate."
If implemented, the Commission's decision could lead within months to the end of the worldwide export ban. The proposal is for a scheme to allow overseas sales of beef from BSE-free cattle born after August 1996.
Franz Fischler, the EU agriculture commissioner, steered the proposal through. Yesterday he said: "We do feel British beef is safe. If we did not, we would not have made this recommendation".
Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, welcomed the proposal - but reminded farmers "it is only a proposal". He warned of tough negotiations ahead, adding that some of the conditions attached were "unnecessary and difficult".
These conditions would allow only deboned fresh meat from animals aged between 6 and 30 months, and born after 1 August 1996 - the date when meat and bone meal was banned. Calves of BSE-affected animals would still be banned, and all animals born after August 1996 to cows with BSE would have to be slaughtered.
Until the Swiss results emerged, the result had seemed a major political breakthrough for the British government. The data, reported today in New Scientist, result from the examination of the brains of healthy cows from herds slaughtered where one or more cases of BSE were found. Using a rapid test developed by the Zurich-based company Prionics, researchers found that eight of 1,761 apparently healthy cows were actually harbouring BSE.
This is more than 100 times the official rate of BSE in Switzerland. The Swiss government now aims to repeat the experiments among cattle from non-BSE herds, to see whether "silent" BSE exists generally among its national herd.Reuse content