Experts try to end German fears on beef: Import threat over 'mad cow disease'

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The Independent Online
BRITISH scientists will try to convince German officials tomorrow that eating British beef is safe and that fears over 'mad cow disease' are unfounded.

Following repeated threats by the German health minister, Horst Seehofer, to ban British beef exports, officials from both countries will meet in Brussels to resolve differences over the perceived health risks from the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an attempt to avert a trade war.

Mr Seehofer said last week on German television that his country had to take maximum precautions to protect people's health, which meant a ban on animal and meat imports from Britain. 'The talks will be very difficult,' he said. 'The British and (other European Union countries) believe the current measures are sufficient but I don't believe that.'

He said the use of cattle entrails in the production of baby food was of concern. 'Here too - irrespective of whether the EU agrees or not - we will ban the use of entrails (in the production of baby food).'

The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food had said before Mr Seehofer's most recent comments that a unilateral ban on British beef by Germany would be a breach of the Treaty of Rome, which underpins free trade within the EU.

Gillian Shephard, the agriculture minister, said there was no scientific justification for banning British beef and no evidence of a link between BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a degenerative brain disorder in humans.

'The action Germany appears to be contemplating would be contrary to community law and is technically indefensible. I have made this clear to the federal government and urged the (European) Commission to act swiftly to discourage such a step,' Mrs Shephard said.

Scientists at Germany's Federal Health Office, which advises the ministry on technical issues, believe a ban is necessary because there is no guarantee that people who eat British beef are free from the risk of developing CJD.

A spokesman from the Federal Health Office said: 'We say that because we cannot be absolutely sure that BSE is not hazardous to humans, we have to take measures to minimise or abolish every kind of risk.' This meant curbing British beef imports.

Scientists in Britain and elsewhere, however, point out that there is no proved link between BSE and CJD. They believe experiments that have failed to transmit the BSE agent from the meat of BSE cattle to laboratory animals demonstrate that the risk of contracting the agent by eating beef is non-existent or minimal.

German scientists, however, argue that BSE has passed in the food chain from infected meat to other animals, such as cats, which means humans could be just as vulnerable.

Mr Seehofer said there was no cause for public hysteria. 'If in a few years, a ban turns out to be superfluous because we find out that BSE cannot spread to people, so much the better.'