The safeguards designed to protect consumers from the risk of BSE in lamb and sheep are illogical, inconsistent and inadequate, says a former government adviser and leading authority on the disease.
Writing in The Independent today, Richard Kimberlin, who sat on the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee for eight years and has specialised in "spongy" brain disorders for nearly 40 years, says the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is playing a potentially dangerous "waiting game" instead of protecting consumers.
Dr Kimberlin wants the FSA to tighten a ban on consumption of certain sheep offal rather than waiting until scientists findfirm evidence that BSE has passed to sheep.
He said: "Why play this waiting game? If the decision to improve the protection of consumers rests on knowing there is a risk, it could be too late because it might be many years before the spread of BSE is detected in sheep. Would it not be wise to assume that BSE is present in sheep and to improve the control measures now? That would put us in a much better position if and when convincing evidence of a risk emerged."
Although BSE has never been detected in sheep, scientists know animals can catch the disease. Sheep were exposed to the infectious agent in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were fed the same food pellets that caused the spread of the cattle epidemic.
And, although BSE in cattle does not spread from cow to cow to any great extent, the opposite has to be assumed in sheep because a similar brain disease, scrapie, is often transmitted from sheep to sheep.
Dr Kimberlin says that if BSE was passed to sheep in the late 1980s then it might have continued to spread during the past 10 years but could be "masked" by the thousands of cases of scrapie, a brain disorder that is harmless to humans. He says: "Because there is no simple test, it may be years before we know if BSE is spreading in sheep, and it could be difficult to prove that it is not. The longer we have to wait for positive evidence, the greater the number of consumers that could be exposed," he adds.
At present, the brain, spinal cord and spleen from sheep of all ages is banned – specified as unfit for either human or animal consumption – but there is no ban on tonsils from animals younger than 12 months, or on sheep intestines and large lymph glands, which are known to have carried the BSE agent.
Dr Kimberlin, who was the driving force behind the ban on specified bovine offal (SBO) in the winter of 1989-90, says the decision not to extend the ban to include sheep material is particularly illogical. He says "Since the SBO ban was based on our knowledge of scrapie in sheep, surely the ban on sheep tissues should at least be the same or equivalent?"
Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the FSA, has admitted that, if BSE was ever to be found in sheep, the existing measures to protect consumers would be inadequate. The FSA describes the risk as purely theoretical.
But Dr Kimberlin says that approach could create a future food scare that would outweigh the relatively small costs of implementing further precautionary measures now. The FSA is understood to be aware of Dr Kimberlin's arguments but it has yet to respond to the points he has raised.Reuse content