Owners of pets seek BSE answers

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Pet food manufacturers denied yesterday that their products might be contaminated with BSE, but the MP who first raised the fears insisted that important safety questions had not been answered.

The Pet Food Manufacturers' Association (PFMA), whose members sold a billion pounds' worth of cat and dog foods last year, said that the suggestion by Martyn Jones, a microbiologist and Labour MP, that BSE-infected "meat and bone meal" (MBM) - produced from grinding down cattle carcasses - could end up in pet food was "a misunderstanding".

Anxious pet owners inundated the RSPCA and the PFMA with calls yesterday, seeking advice.

Under a government order, pet food containing MBM may not be prepared on the same premises as food for cattle or sheep. But the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) said yesterday that this was done to avoid cattle being fed meat remains, and that it did not imply that MBM might be contaminated with BSE.

However, the measure has clearly been taken so that there is no possibility of BSE-infected products being passed back into cattle feed. This "recycling" is believed to have caused the original epidemic, which has so far led to almost 164,000 cases of BSE being diagnosed, and an estimated 700,000 cattle which were developing the disease being passed as fit for human consumption. MBM is made from such cattle. The agent that causes BSE is not killed by the manufacturing process.

Dogs appear to be immune to BSE, but cats have developed a version, called feline spongiform encepalopathy (FSE). Since the first case was identified in 1990, 71 FSE cases have been reported, all in the UK. But there has been a sharp decline in cases: last year there were eight, but this year there has been just one. This fall mirrors the BSE epidemic, which in 1992 saw 36,000 cases in cattle. So far this year there have been 5,219 cases.

Mr Jones said yesterday that a number of questions remained unanswered about the material being used in petfood.

"Some petfood representatives have said that I have accepted that I misunderstood the situation. That is not true. Having spoken to them, there are still questions to be answered.''