THE BSE RISK: Threat to young may take years to evaluate

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The Independent Online
Scientists fear it will be impossible to give definitive guidelines on whether children can safely eat beef or its products without fresh experimental evidence, which could take months or years to produce.

But experts in the field of "mad cow disease", or BSE, and its equivalent forms in other species, believe that as long as BSE exists in cattle there will be a faint but real risk that it might somehow be passed on to humans.

"We believe that if there's now any risk to children, then it must be on about the same level as that of crossing the road," said a member of SEAC, the independent advisory committee to the Government on BSE and its human form, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), yesterday.

"The point is, for adults the principal risk is all in the past, from the time before all the regulations [on what parts of cows could be used for food] were changed. Any future risk to us is trivial in comparison to those in the past. But for a baby born yesterday, the risks are all in the future. The equations are all different for babies and children than for adults."

A number of scientific experiments are now in progress to test how infectious BSE might be to humans. One, using mice with human genes, produced preliminary results last December which suggested that it was not. But the experiment needs another year at least to produce a final result.

The members of SEAC are holding an emergency meeting this weekend at the urgent request of Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, to decide what advice to give the Government on allowing children to eat beef. It is expected that they will give special attention to the perceived risk from products such as sausages which use "mechanically recovered meat", produced by tearing the carcass apart using industrial equipment after the standard meat joints have been removed.

One government scientist, separate from SEAC but involved in assessing the risk to the population from BSE, told the Independent yesterday: "The risk has never been from the muscle or the milk. It's all the other things. The constant tinkering that has been done with the legislation has been to make sure that the really dangerous tissues - the brain and spinal cord - don't get into meat products." It is in those tissues that the disease agent - a mutated cell-membrane protein known as a prion - is believed to breed and cause the disease.

But he admitted that in the light of the latest findings of SEAC - that 10 human deaths could have been caused by exposure to BSE-infected materials - he is re-calculating his risk assessments.

The new assessments will try to see whether it is reasonable to assume that the deaths were caused by exposure - occupational or otherwise - to materials which had been produced from BSE-infected cattle in the years before 1989. At that time, the Government introduced a series of measures banning the use of material from any cow's central nervous system in food for human consumption.