Should ours be the only children in the world to eat British beef?

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The Independent Online
The 13 scientists on the independent expert advisory committee on BSE and CJD meet today at 11am to ponder one of the most urgent questions ever to face the nation: is it safe for our children to eat beef?

Nobody knows for certain if we are on the brink of an epidemic of CJD that could kill 500,000 people, or a containable problem that might claim a few score lives a year.

The one devastating fact we do know about mad cow disease is that the top scientists in the field have reversed their position about its link with human illness.

With British beef now banned world-wide, and the Consumers Association advising against eating it, we wait for the committee to advise ministers on two crucial issues:

n Should parents ban their children from eating beef?

n Why might it be safe for adults to eat it but not children?

Yesterday Professor John Pattison, chairman of the committee, caused further confusion by saying that he would not feed beef to his three-month- old grandson who had never eaten meat, but he would continue to give it to his nine-month-old granddaughter.

There are six further key questions about BSE and its risks that have not been answered - and never posed in public by ministers or their advisors. If they are not on Professor Pattison's agenda this morning, they should be.

1. Is a single bite of a BSE-infected meat enough to pass on the disease, or does it require repeated exposure over a longer period?

2. Are calf and beef liver and kidney - which are not removed from carcasses - absolutely safe to eat?

3.Why should beef be dangerous now, given the safety measures that have been taken in the past six years? If it is safe, why does the Government keep tightening its measures?

4. As experiments have shown that BSE can be passed to pigs, are vets and farmers being told to monitor pigs on farms for any signs of the disease?

5. Can the disease be passed to chickens? If not, why did SEAC this week ban the use of all mammalian meat for feed for all farm animals?

6. When will we know if the danger of an epidemic is over?

There are questions, too, about the actions - or lack of them - that the Government took in the 1980s.

When BSE was first identified in 1986, a committee led by Professor Sir Richard Southwood was set up to consider the risks posed by the disease and what measures should be taken to stop it.

Professor Southwood told the Independent yesterday, "In defence of our committee, we met on 20 June 1988 and I wrote the next day that certain steps should be carried out right away. But we did say that it would be a decade or so before we saw anything that would tell us whether the disease had passed to humans.

"We were wrong in thinking it wouldn't get across the species boundary. But what should we have done? Ordered the culling of all the cattle in Britain? The fact is that the regulations that were brought in to stop cattle remains being fed back to cattle would have been effective. But some farmers, as we now know, held on to their old, contaminated feeds for at least a year.

"It's not just us. Society as a whole has to take responsibility for this. But of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing."

Yet the Government could have taken urgent action at that time which could have eased the problems we are now experiencing. Experts in the field point to two key questions:

1. Why did the Government not begin a crash programme to develop a test which would diagnose BSE in live cattle before they showed symptoms of the disease?

2. Why was an experiment not begun immediately to see whether BSE could be passed orally to primates such as chimpanzees - an experiment which would have told us the level of risk we would now be facing?

Dr Anne Maddocks, a member of the independent pressure group the Spongiform Encephalopathy Research Committee, says that the second question is now moot: "There's no point doing the primate experiment now," she said yesterday. "It's us. We are the experiment."

The meeting of the 13 scientists, at the Civil Service College, in Sunningdale, Berkshire, is expected to go on today and tomorrow.

Members who have spoken to the Independent are almost fearful of the responsibility before them.

"I almost just want to crawl into a hole," one said this week. "I look at the paper and think, My God, we've killed off a pounds 500m export industry. You can't imagine what it's like. But we have to make these decisions, and we will."

Another said "The Government is in very deep water over this and they are only too glad to pass the responsibility for making decisions over to us. And then they simultaneously want the answer, and only the right answer."

It is understandable that the Government does not want to scaremonger. But equally it owes us an explanation after protecting the interests of the meat industry for so long.

First, it must lay bare everything it knows - particularly evaluations of all the risks posed by eating beef and its products. Not just those we face now but those it kept to itself in the past.

Secondly, it must divest itself of its overly cosy relationship with the meat industry. Anyone who thinks that this relationship is valuable and should be retained should ask the question: who changed the regulations in slaughterhouses which meant that the remains of BSE-infected cattle could be fed back to cows, thus prolonging the agony we all now face?