`We considered killing all the 11m cattle - the entire national herd'

Ministers admit possible link between mad cow disease and human deaths
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The Independent Online
Britain was last night facing one of its biggest public health crises after the first scientific advice to the Government that that there was a possible link between 10 fatal cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and eating beef infected with BSE - "mad cow disease".

Ministers were struggling to contain public alarm as it emerged that one option was destruction of the "national herd" - in other words all 11 million cattle in Britain. One of the Government's scientific advisers said last night: "We did consider killing off the entire national herd. It would have been an incredible step, but it has always been in the minds of people dealing with this disease that it might be necessary.

"If by next year there are 500 CJD cases, then the herd won't survive."The revelation that eating BSE-infected beef was the likely cause of death of the 10 people who suffered CJD flew in the face of repeated ministerial assurances since 1985 that it was safe to eat beef.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, yesterday passed on scientific advice that the risk of eating beef was "extremely small". But ministers will wait until after an emergency weekend meeting of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) before deciding whether to issue specific advice on whether their children should be eating beef.

Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture, sought to bolster confidence in the farming and beef industries by declaring a series of new emergency measures - including tough new curbs on the use of meat in animal feed. He added: "We believe that beef can be eaten with confidence."

Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer - who last night wrote to all GPs in Britain passing on the latest scientific findings - said he would continue to eat beef "as part of a varied and balanced diet".

Mr Dorrell insisted in his statement that there is "at present" no evidence that children are more risk of contracting CJD. But he added: "Parents will be concerned about implications for their children and I have asked the advisory committee to provide specific advice after their next meeting."

The measures announced by Mr Hogg include a requirement that cattle aged over 30 months must be deboned in licensed plants supervised by the Meat Hygiene Service, and a blanket prohibition on the use of mammal meat and bonemeal in feed for all animals in feed for all farm products. This means that cattle waste will not be allowed in any feed - including that for poultry. He also said that existing controls in abattoirs and other meat plants would be more rigidly enforced.

He told the Commons he did not believe the findings would "damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market". But he added that financial support was available for farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy and the Government would "monitor the situation".

Harriet Harman, shadow Health Secretary, welcomed the measures but said public confidence on the issue was "hanging by a thread". Accusing Mr Dorrell of giving "yet more false assurance" by reporting Sir Kenneth's intention to go on eating beef, she pointedly asked whether he and members of SEAC would "in practice" give their children beef.

In emergency sessions last Saturday and again on Tuesday, SEAC considered 10 cases of people under 42 who had died from CJD. Experts from the Edinburgh CJD Surveillance Unit had established that a full review of possible causes "had failed to explain these cases adequately".

The report added: "Although there is no direct evidence of a link, on current data and in the absence of any credible alternative, the most likely explanation at present is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE after the introduction of the Specified Bovine Offal Ban in 1989." The 1989 ban - a direct response to the outbreak of BSE - forbade the use of brain and spinal cord in cattle feed.

Professor John Pattison, chairman of SEAC, said: "We have now arising in 1994 and 1995, 10 cases of a variant of CJD that we have not seen before. The incubation period of spongiform encephalopathies is five to 15 years. This suggests something new was happening in the middle of 1995 that would have resulted from exposure in the middle to the late 1980s . . . [This] drives us inevitably to the conclusion that the most likely risk factor for these cases in the middle 1980s, is exposure to BSE."

Dr Rob Will, head of the National CJD Surveillance Unit, added: "We are reporting a new phenomenon; a major cause for concern."