Random checks for BSE rejected

THE GOVERNMENT last night rejected a Labour call for random checks on slaughtered cattle for the 'mad cow disease', BSE.

Opening a Commons debate on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, David Clark, Labour's agriculture spokesman, said there was no reason why Ministry of Agriculture scientists could not select routinely slaughtered cow heads for examination.

'It would be a precautionary measure and assuming no cows are found positive it would be most reassuring to the general public. If, of course, infected cows were to be found to have slipped through into the human food chain, then other action might be necessary,' he said.

The Government's own scientists had recommended random sampling, Mr Clark said, adding that it would be an 'acid test' of ministers' assertions that there was no problem and policies were working 100 per cent.

David Curry, Minister of State for Agriculture, repeated the claim, insisting the Government had 'got it right from the start'. After peaking in late summer and autumn, the number of BSE cases would be 'on the downward path'. Over the last four weeks the number of cases had been running at an average 700 a week - 'there is no hidden horror'.

Rejecting random testing of heads - BSE is carried in brains - Mr Curry said a high proportion of (live) cows were already inspected for clinical signs of the disease. 'It would not add to our comprehensive public health precautions,' he said, pointing to the ban on offal from cattle over six- months old entering the food chain.

'All that random testing would do is redirect resources in terms of expertise away from more important work,' he added.

Speaking before the debate, Mr Clark said ministers had got the scale of the problem wrong. 'They said there would be 20,000 cases; it is likely to be 100,000. That means that if any animals are slipping through into the human food chain, the chances of them doing so are increased fivefold.'

He added that there was a built-in financial incentive if infected cows were sold into the human food chain. 'It's not as great as it was,' he said, 'but there certainly is an incentive; probably a couple of hundred quid a cow.'

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