Gelatine, used in huge quantities of sweets, cakes, biscuits, sauces and other foods, may be implicated in the new BSE scare, it was revealed yesterday. But there was profound confusion about the issue, which takes the beef crisis into new areas for every shopper.
Gelatine is a binding agent for foods and medicine made from boiled animal bones, including cattle bones - which have become the subject of a proposed Government ban, when attached to cuts of meat, such as T-bone steaks. Europe produces about 97,000 tonnes of it annually, and probably consumes even more.
So has the disease spread to this most widespread and homely of substances? As with many aspects of the BSE story, no one seems entirely sure. "Infectivity has never been shown in gelatin," said a government spokesman yesterday - repeating a line which has been used for more than a decade. In contrast, Stephen Dealler, an independent expert on the disease, said: "The method used to detect infectivity - injecting it into mice - makes it far less sensitive than you'd ideally want. A lot of tissues have come out negative in the government tests. But you really don't know for sure."
The Government's certainty that meat on the bone poses a risk - however small - prompted a typically British reaction from some shoppers yesterday: they began bulk-buying. Joe Collier, owner of Eastwoods Butchers in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, said he had sold a week's worth of ribs in one day to customers defying the planned ban - which requires a Parliamentary Order, not expected until January.
"One customer rang up and placed an order for pounds 200 of Scotch rib of beef," said Mr Collier. "He won't be able to pick it up for a week but he wanted to make sure he'd be able to get hold of it. We've sold more rib of beef today than I normally would in a whole week. Customers are saying they're very angry about what's happened."
Farmers meanwhile continued with a more Gallic reaction. Many were last night converging on Dover for a blockade, continuing protests which have been building in size and spread since Sunday night. Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, pledged to do everything in his power to bring the chaos to a halt. "Farmers have no right to act outside the law. If this was a bunch of unemployed youngsters people would see it completely differently," he said. "Farmers are not above the law - that has got to be made clear to them."
Michael Jack, his predecessor in the post, s said he had met hill farmers on Wednesday who had told him beef prices at Banbury market were at a 20-year low. Hill farmers, who have an average income of only pounds 10,500 a year, have been hit badly by the problem.
But while the anger over meat off the bone grew, the confusion over the bones off the meat is quietly growing. The European Commission intends to bring in new regulations from 1 January which will compel Europe's gelatine manufacturers - who produce about 97,000 tonnes annually, for revenues of about pounds 580m - to use only "approved" bones from "BSE-free" countries.
But with fewer than 20 working days before that comes into force, the EC hasn't decided what "approved" or even "BSE-free" means. In particular, Germany, which has recorded five cases of BSE, insists it should be defined as "BSE-free" because the cases were found only in imported rather than home-bred cattle. Jurgen Thomsen, secretary of the Association of Gelatine Manufacturers of Europe, said yesterday: "I have absolutely no idea what the definition will be."
There is also confusion over what bones can be used. Gelatine manufacturers have previously used the vertebrae as raw material - but as the spinal cord has repeatedly been shown to be very infectious, and with this week's announcement that bone marrow is potentially infectious, they are worried that that too will be taken off the approved list. In that case, the price will go up, and they will be forced to import from the US and Asia, which presently vie for market share.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was last night still puzzling over the consequences of its own ruling. "We're not sure if gelatine in food will be able to be made from bones from any countries," said a spokeswoman yesterday. "We will thrash that out with the industry, in consultation to start as soon as possible and report as soon as possible."
Farmers blockading ports were damaging their own interests as well as Britain's close relationship with Ireland, Mr Cunningham warned last night after a meeting with his Irish counterpart, Joe Walsh.
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