The Government's top scientist on mad cow disease yesterday refused to support the advice of Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, that there is "no conceivable risk" of the disease passing to humans.
"I freely admit that we cannot yet give anyone absolute guarantees," said Professor John Pattison, who chairs the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), an eight-strong team of scientists advising government on the risks posed by mad cow disease, or BSE, to humans.
Asked if he could defend Mr Dorrell's statement, made earlier this week, Professor Pattison replied "No, it's not possible at this moment to give the proof there's no connection between BSE and human disease."
Two independent consumer groups, the Food Commission and the Consumers' Association, called for the committee to include consumer representatives, and for its work to be made answerable to Parliament rather than ministers. At present, Mr Dorrell and Douglas Hogg, the minister of agriculture, must approve appointments to SEAC, and decide what action to take on its advice.
Public anxiety that BSE could be passed to humans, causing its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), has grown in the past week. During that time, auction prices of British beef have fallen by about three per cent, and more than 1,150 schools have taken beef off their lunch menus.
Yesterday local authorities were also advised by the Advisory Body for Social Services catering to remove beef products such as beefburgers and sausages from child-care establishments.
Despite growing concern, the CJD Surveillance unit, based in Edinburgh, told the Independent the overall trend is downward. Deaths from CJD are expected to fall compared to 1994, when there were 56 cases. So far this year there have been 29 cases.