Meat industry 'thwarted tracking of BSE trail'

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The Independent Online

The food industry was accused on Thursday of hampering senior scientists trying to find out how many people were exposed to the risk of BSE in the 1970s and 1980s.

The accusations came as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that it would investigate food firms who flavoured their products with cheap scraps of meat blasted by high-pressure water hose from cattle carcasses after prime cuts were taken.

Members of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) are furious with the industry for "continually thwarting" their attempts to find out which products included mechanically recovered meat (MRM) when the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was at its height.

The FSA said yesterday that it was drawing up plans to force the food industry to cooperate after Seac's failure to get food firms to say whether their meat pies, sausages and burgers ever contained MRM.

Since 1996, when BSE was found to have infected humans, Seac has tried to discover which food firms used MRM, a red slurry formed by stripping the scraps of meat from a butchered carcass and which most likely would have included spinal cord infected with BSE.

The scientists need to calculate how much BSE-infected material entered the human food chain and who was at greatest risk of consuming it. These facts could help judge the future course of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE.

Professor John Collinge, a member of Seac, based at St Mary's Hospital in London, speaking on BBC Radio 4 said the food industry had been unhelpful. "We have asked repeatedly for this information ... there is feedback that there is reluctance from the industry to provide the full information."

The FSA said it had had preliminary discussions with the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, and the British Meat Manufacturing Association, which have now promised to cooperate.

Five years ago, Seac commissioned the Leatherhead Food Research Association, an industry sponsored body, to carry out an "audit trail" of bovine and sheep offal, but the attempt was hampered by inadequate information. "We wanted an audit trail [to go] through the books. The food industry was not happy with this," said a former Seac member..

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which controls the files relating to this period, yesterday refused to say which companies the Leatherhead researchers had approached, or what was the response. But an FSA spokeswoman said it was Defra's responsibility to comment. "It has the records, not us," she said.

The Liberal Democrat MP Paul Tyler, said: "The conspiracy of silence in the meat processing industry is scandalous. Not content with bringing the livestock industry to its knees, causing misery to families affected by CJD and costing the taxpayer billions, the meat processing industry appears to want to hide behind the excuse of commercial confidentiality."

The Transport and General Workers' Union, the biggest union involved in food production and processing, also called for more openness in the meat industry. Its national organiser for food and agriculture, Brian Revell, said: "It is extremely irresponsible for companies to refuse to co-operate with Seac."

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