Food agency under fire over 'BSE in sheep'

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The Food Standards Agency was reprimanded yesterday by the scientist in charge of the experiments designed to investigate whether sheep have been infected with BSE.

Professor Chris Bostock, the head of the government- funded Institute for Animal Health, where the tests are taking place, said a statement about the experiments issued by the FSA on Thursday was premature and unhelpful.

The FSA had said that the results of the tests to determine whether bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was present in the brains of sheep that died in the early 1990s, "could be compatible with BSE having been in sheep at that time". The agency said that although the experiments were incomplete, it had wanted to keep the public informed of the latest results because of a plan to promote the sale of lamb that could not be exported because of foot-and-mouth disease restrictions.

Professor Bostock said that the experiment, carried out at the institute in Compton, Berkshire, involves "pooling" the brain material of about 3,000 sheep diagnosed with scrapie, a brain disorder of sheep that is considered harmless to people, and injecting this material into mice to see if they develop BSE or scrapie.

He said that the experiment was far from complete and that it would take until November at the earliest for any meaningful results to emerge that could shed light on whether the sheep were infected with BSE.

"From our point of view there is nothing new," Professor Bostock said yesterday. "They [the FSA] are just making a statement based on existing experimental information. There is no new experimental information. If it was left to me, I don't think there is anything helpful to add at this stage from a scientific point of view. I personally think that it is completely unhelpful to start discussing results until they are complete and in the public domain in a way that everyone can see what we are talking about."

He added that though he had seen a draft version of the FSA's statement before it was issued, he did not agree that the results were "compatible" with BSE existing in the sheep.

"I wouldn't personally use that word. All that one can say is that we cannot distinguish at this stage between what might emerge as a BSE-like strain, as opposed to what might emerge as scrapie strains," he said.

He added: "These are very complex experiments, and this is uncharted territory in terms of looking for a particular strain in a complex mixture. There is nothing definitive yet.

"At the moment there are no unequivocal results [from the tests]. And we just don't know whether the results are going to show whether it is all natural scrapie or whether we can pull out one strain that does look like BSE."

The 3,000 sheep brains were originally collected for use inother experiments and because of that they might have suffered cross-contamination, sincecattle brains and sheep brains alike were collected at the same veterinary centres, the professor said.

"Even if we pull out something that looks like BSE you still have the worrying issue that it could be contamination at the time of collecting because this material had never been intended for this purpose."