Tests which identify BSE infection are ignored

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TESTS WHICH could identify cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy after slaughter are being ignored, The Independent can reveal.

As the Agriculture minister Elliot Morley tucked into a steak yesterday during a barbecue to mark the lifting of the European Union's worldwide export ban on British beef, experts and relatives of victims of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (v-CJD) expressed concern that the simple and readily available tests were not being used.

Although the number of BSE cases reported in Britain is more than 20 times higher than anywhere in the world, with 3,161 cases in 1998 and more than 1,040 so far this year, the EU has not required that beef for export to Europe be tested with any of three clinical tests validated by the European Commission (EC).

The father of one victim of v-CJD, caused by BSE, said that the lack of testing left him "speechless". Roger Tomkins, whose daughter, Clare, died in1998, said: "If there is such a test, it's in everybody's interest to identify the animals incubating the disease and get them out of the way as soon as possible."

The tests would be used to identify cattle in slaughterhouses which have BSE but no symptom. An analysis in 1996 showed that for every BSE case reported, there were about 40 subclinical cases which would go undetected into food.

The Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), which lobbies on behalf of the meat industry, said the use of a test would help revive the export market, which was worth pounds 500m annually before the Government announced a link between BSE and v-CJD in 1996. "Once we have a test that is as foolproof as possible, we would press for its wider use," said John Pratt, veterinary adviser to the MLC.

But a number of tests have been put through trials. The EC carried out an experiment last year in which four companies with tests were sent unidentified samples, some from animals showing BSE and others from New Zealand-born animals free of BSE. The results, published last month, showed that three of the companies - Enfer of Ireland, Prionics of Switzerland and CEA of France - scored 100 per cent in identifying both groups.

Further tests with diluted solutions from the two groups were also carried out, with similar results: the Enfer test, which uses a system developed by Proteus International of Macclesfield and can be carried out in four hours, scored perfect marks with a solution diluted by a factor of 30.

Arthur Rushton, chief operating officer of Proteus International, said: "The question is, why aren't people taking this up? From the scientific point of view it's hard to say what more is needed. These tests work."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: "We are looking at possible diagnostic tests, but we need to look at them carefully before deciding how to use them. The test results are important, but are only one step."

Mr Pratt said: "The question is which tissues you should test for subclinical BSE - itseems to migrate from the gut to the nerves, to the spinal column and then to the brain."