Official figures reveal that the number of possible cases of Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease (CJD) in Britain this year do not justify the world-wide panic over beef. The new evidence emerged as British meat traders warned that their businesses were days away from collapse, and European vets refused to lift their ban.
The latest statistics, obtained exclusively by the Independent, show that since the start of the year, 26 suspected cases of CJD have been referred to the National CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh, which checks any possible case of the disease nation-wide. In the past five years, only half the cases referred to the unit have been confirmed as CJD - implying that this year's total will be about 50 cases. That is less than 1994, the highest total on record, when 59 people died of CJD, and well before the latest panic, said Dr Rob Will, the unit's head, yesterday. Forty-three people died in 1995. In 1993 the death toll was 45 while in 1992 it was 51.
Sheila Gore, an independent statistical researcher for the Medical Research Council, said that the key to the CJD Unit's data would be what happened over the next 12 months. "Typically, if you are looking for an epidemic, you look to see how long it takes the number of cases to double." However, the low incidence of CJD - normally one per million each year - means that as few as four cases of the new strain this year could indicate, statistically, that there was an epidemic of CJD under way.
Dr Will said: "Until two or three weeks ago we had only had 14 referrals of suspected cases, which is what we would expect. Since the publicity, there have been another 12 referrals, but it's easy to overinterpret that. In between, I had written to every neurologist in the country asking them to tell us about anything that looked like CJD. This can't be interpreted as suggesting an increase in the absolute numbers of people with CJD."
The new evidence should counter fears about a possible link between eating BSE-infected meat and developing CJD. Panic was first triggered last month when the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, announced in the Commons that the Surveillance Unit was studying10 cases, in the past two years, of a new strain of the disease among young adults. Dr Will said yesterday that the evidence so far did not support suggestions of an epidemic.
But the news may come too late to meat traders, who yesterday wrote to the Prime Minister, protesting that many of them faced imminent liquidation, and that "unless immediate action is taken, the [British] industry as a whole will plummet into irreversible decline". Thousands of jobs were at risk, they warned.
The International Meat Trade Association (IMTA) also accused the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) of seeming "not to understand, or not to care".
There was more bad news from Europe yesterday, as a meeting of senior European veterinary officers decided to retain the world export ban imposed last month on British beef products - even for products such as gelatine and tallow, used in sweets, pills and candles. Scientists last week confirmed that these posed no risk to humans. European Union officials said there was still a political need to maintain the ban.
"There was a quite strong body of opinion that it is still too early to support making any changes to the ban," said a British Government spokesman. "It is still felt that the ban has not been in force long enough to reassure consumers." MAFF called the decision "bitterly disappointing" and vowed to continue fighting it.
Meanwhile, the European Commission is awaiting detailed plans from the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, for a programme of selective slaughter of animals and herds which may have come in contact with BSE.
Mr Hogg has until the end of the month to produce his proposals - the earliest date for consideration of removing the beef ban entirely. Last night, government officials accepted that a swift end to the ban was politically impossible.
However, the IMTA insisted that swift action was necessary to protect livelihoods and businesses. Its members have pounds 35m worth of stock which has been rendered unsaleable by the EU's ban, yet which is nevertheless fit for human consumption under British guidelines.
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