A hard-hitting report by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) is unable to provide any firm conclusions from the present cases of new-variant Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease (nv-CJD), the human form of BSE, because the disease has an incubation period of years, not months.
The warning from the CMO, Professor Liam Donaldson, came as Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, announced that the beef-on-the-bone ban would remain for at least another six months because there was still "a small risk" for public health.
Dismissing Tory attacks on his decision, Mr Brown said 35 people so far had died of nv-CJD and it was a "statistical certainty" that more would follow. "It is absolutely right to err, if err we do, on the precautionary side. Should the incidence of confirmed cases of nv-CJD in people begin to increase substantially this would be a source of grave concern and would signal, in part, a higher degree of sensitivity in the human population to BSE infected cattle tissue than has been apparent hitherto," he said.
In a statement to MPs - confirming a report in The Independent last week - Mr Brown said the CMO's report warned there was a possibility of maternal transmission, where BSE could be passed from cow to calf, and the "very small but still present risk that could cause infectivity in the bone element and the material clinging to the bone".
But Tim Yeo, the Tory spokesman on agriculture, accused Mr Brown of "failing" his "first real test" of leadership after "all the hints he had been dropping in the last few weeks about the ban". "There will be huge disappointment for farmers and consumers who are being denied the chance to choose their own menus," he said.
Mr Brown insisted it would be "absolutely wrong" to set aside the scientific and medical advice given by the CMO to make a "political decision" on such a serious issue. "By far and away the worst thing I could do for the beef market is to create some new uncertainty as to whether the product is safe. The need to protect public health and retain confidence in beef and beef products remains the Government's paramount concern," he said.
Mr Brown promised to review the ban in August.
Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, said Mr Brown had defied common sense. "The Government appears to have taken an ultra, ultra-precautionary approach, but to the ordinary person in the street it must seem nonsensical that the beef-on-the-bone ban should remain in place."