Top scientist adds to BSE warnings

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Professor Colin Blakemore, one of the country's leading physiologists, yesterday became the latest scientist to warn against eating beef and to denounce government's assurances that so-called "mad cow" disease could not pass to humans.

Professor Blakemore, of Oxford University, said eating beef was. "just not worth the risk." He added that the reassurances given at the start of the epidemic of the disease were a knee-jerk reaction. One of the Government's first actions at the start of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic was to reassure the public that beef and cattle offal were safe to eat.

"Considerable pressure must have been brought to bear on some of those involved to say what they did. There is growing evidence of a transmission to humans and I believe there is a strong chance we are going to suffer the most frightening epidemic," he said.

Professor Blakemore is the latest scientist to say that mad cow disease may pose a significant hazard to human health. Last week Sir Bernard Tomlinson, a neuropathologist and the architect of the Government's health reforms in London, said he had given up eating beef products.

He said he no longer ate meat pies or beef liver and "at the moment" would not eat a burger "under any circumstances". He also warned that "it is now possible that BSE is transmitting to humans".

Dr Stuart Jamieson, a neurologist at Glasgow University, said he had avoided beef products for several years. "I am not convinced BSE cannot be transmitted to humans. I have been laughed at in the past by other scientists because I don't eat it, but I think more and more of them are starting to change their minds," he said.

About 300 cattle per week are currently slaughtered because they harbour the disease, down from a peak of 700 in 1993. An estimated 600 more animals with BSE reach the abattoir before the symptoms appear and it is these animals which enter the human food chain. To try to eliminate the chances of the disease passing to humans, those parts of cattle offal thought to harbour the disease are supposed to be removed from all carcasses. But substantial quantities are "leaking" through to the dinner table.

Slaughterhouse owners have also consistently failed to implement the health measures. Inspectors from the State Veterinary Service made unannounced visits to 193 abattoirs in September and found failings in the handling of offal in 92 of them. In October they visited 153 slaughterhouses and found failings in 52.

The Government maintains that there is only a minute risk of the disease passing to humans and that the removal of the brain, spinal cord and thymus gland from cattle carcasses eliminates the residual risk.