Beckett under pressure to explain BSE test blunder

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Indy Politics

The Opposition will demand a Commons statement from Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, today on the chaos over the testing of sheep for BSE.

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats want her to explain how scientists mistakenly experimented on cattle brains. They will accuse her of trying to smuggle out the embarrassing news in a vague, late-night press release. Both parties vowed to increase pressure on Mrs Beckett over the affair, despite her apology for the way it was handled.

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Rural Affairs Secretary, said yesterday: "We need to have a statement on how it took four years of scientific research before anyone realised they were dealing with the wrong kind of brains. We need to hear about the way the information was released. Most importantly, we need a statement about the safety of lamb products and how long it will take to establish conclusively whether or not lamb is capable of being infected by BSE."

Colin Breed, the Liberal Democrat agriculture spokes-man, said: "Margaret Beckett must make an emergency statement to the Commons to outline what she now intends to do to allay fears about potential BSE in sheep." He said the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had "some awkward questions to answer over its scientific policy".

The experiment began in 1997 and involved testing for the presence of BSE in what was then believed to be a pooled collection of 2,860 brains of sheep that had died of scrapie, a brain disease related to BSE, between 1990 and 1992.

Defra has begun an inquiry into how the Institute of Animal Health, Edinburgh, examined the wrong brains for so long. It said it was asking the scientists some "very testing questions".

The mistake threatens to set back the prospect of an authoritative opinion on whether lamb can harbour BSE.

Mrs Beckett has said she authorised a brief statement on Wednesday disclosing that there was a possibility that sheep material under the microscope had been "contaminated" by cattle brains.

Two days later, Defra confirmed that the tests had been done on the brains of cows, rather than sheep. The clarification fuelled charges that the Government was exhibiting "Jo Moore syndrome" by trying to bury bad news stories.

Defra denied claims yesterday that the Government knew three months ago that the tests had been ruined by the blunder. It said a re-evaluation of the experiments ordered in July had been routine, with the risk of contamination believed at the time to be "one-tenth of 1 per cent".

A spokesman denied the mistake had held up a decision by the spongiform enceph-alopathy advisory committee, which is advising the Government on BSE, on the risk posed by lamb. "There is plenty of information coming in from other sources."

He said he did not know whether Mrs Beckett would make a statement.