THE GOVERNMENT has launched a damage limitation exercise to quell fears over the possibility that British sheep might have become infected with BSE.
Government press officers have been issued with a set of 16 questions and answers to rebut claims that British lamb is unsafe to eat, and that not enough is being done to assess the risk of BSE entering the sheep population.
Such is the concern about another food scare that Government officials planned their rebuttal campaign last week when they became aware of a forthcoming article in the journal Nature which highlighted scientific fears over BSE in sheep.
A "restricted" memorandum issued last Wednesday by officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food warned other Whitehall departments to be on the alert for reaction to the Nature piece, and in particular criticism from Sheila McKechnie, head of the Consumers' Association, who expressed concern about feeding lamb to children.
"We have agreed the attached line to take," said the memo, circulated with the 16 questions and answers which press officers were warned not to stray from when handling press enquiries.
One question and answer stipulates how the issue of children should be dealt with: "The age range of new variant CJD does not suggest that those who were children at the time they were probably exposed to BSE infection were at any greater risk than those who were young adults ... infants and children were not likely to be more susceptible than adults."
It was only yesterday that the rebuttal campaign was needed, when Radio 4's Farming Today interviewed Professor Jeffrey Almond, a member of the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac), who expressed concerns about sheep and BSE. Professor Almond reiterated that BSE- infected material was fed to sheep in the 1980s; that it is possible to transmit BSE to sheep experimentally; and that BSE may go undetected in sheep because its symptoms are similar to scrapie, a natural disease of sheep.
"I think there is a distinct possibility that BSE is out there in the sheep population," he said. "But there are several ways of viewing that. One is to say it's been out there all the time, and does not cause a prob- lem because it doesn't transmit from sheep to humans.
"If, on the other hand, it's gone back into sheep from cows and is behaving somehow differently from sheep scrapie, then that could pose a risk to humans. Of course we have to be concerned about that."
Professor Almond then warned: "I think if we found BSE in sheep it would be a national emergency, and I think politicians would have to think very hard about what the appropriate response would be."
Concern over the possibility of BSE infecting sheep goes back to experiments in the early 1990s which showed that, when sheep are fed material derived from infected cattle, they can develop a brain disorder with scrapie- like symptoms. When scientists injected pieces of sheep brain into laboratory mice they found it was identical to BSE. Scrapie is thought to be harmless to humans but BSE is known to cause new variant CJD.
The fear is that, if BSE in cattle poses a threat to human health, then BSE in sheep - if it is present in the national flock - may pose an equal threat. And as scrapie has become endemic by passing from one sheep to another, there are fears that BSE in sheep could do the same thing, making it harder to eradicate than BSE in cattle.
The big question is whether any sheep in commercial flocks have ever contracted BSE. In July 1996 Seac decided that, even though the risk was only theoretical, action still had to be taken. It recommended the removal of sheep brains from the human food chain and urged the Government to increase its research effort into the problem. In May 1997, Seac extended the offal ban to include spinal cords, spleen and mechanically recovered sheep meat.
These measures did not address the central problem of whether BSE has infected sheep in commercial flocks. The main difficulty of assessing this is that there is no simple test for BSE - it takes up to two years and many thousands of pounds to look for BSE in sheep brain by injecting material into different strains of lab mice.
So far only nine sheep in the national adult flock of 20 million have been tested for BSE in this way, and as Professor Almond said, "Having found zero out of nine, what confidence can we attach to the statement `BSE is not present in sheep'? The answer is `very little'. Absence of evidence if often confused with evidence of absence."
Yesterday, Government press officers kept to the wording of the official rebuttal: "There is no evidence to show that BSE has been transmitted to sheep through infected feed and, if so, whether it is still present in any commercial sheep flock. As any sheep infected through feed would almost certainly have been slaughtered by now, the disease would only be present today if some form of transmission had occurred."
Professor John Collinge, another member of Seac and head of the prion disease group at Imperial College School of Medicine in London, is struggling to develop a much simpler test for BSE.
He has complained that his faster and cheaper test is not receiving the support from the agricultural community and MAFF that it deserves. Government officials, however, insist that the Collinge test is receiving the highest priority.
"In fact we have put quite a lot of money into two research teams, one at the Central Veterinary Laboratory, Weybridge and one at the Institute of Animal Health, Compton, who have both worked with Collinge to try to get his technique to work on sheep," said the MAFF memo.
Without a simple test that can distinguish BSE in sheep from scrapie, it will be virtually impossible to detect the disease if it is only present in a fraction of the national flock. However, even if only 0.1 per cent of the flock is affected by BSE, that would still represent thousands of infected animals.
"This problem is not going to go away easily. We are going to be tackling it for years to come," said one BSE scientist.
THE GOOD (AND BAD) FOOD GUIDE
Eggs, bacon and tomato.
No one can forget what Edwina Currie did to eggs. The former health minister triggered the salmonella scare in the late 1980s achieving at a stroke what years of health campaigns over cholesterol had failed to do. Bacon is feared for its cancer causing nitrates and tomatoes of the genetically engineered variety may not appeal.
Porridge, cereals, bread.
The healthy way to start the day. Porridge oats have long been praised for their de-coking effect on the arteries. Cereals of the sugarless variety are a good source of carbohydrate but pasteurised milk has recently been linked with a bug that causes Crohn's disease. Better stick to sterilised - it may taste revolting but why take the risk?
Coffee with milk and artificial sweetner.
Addiction is the big worry with coffee - aside from fears about cancer and heart disease. Many cannot get through the day without their caffeine shot. Take it black, to cut the calories, and unsweetened to avoid cancer.
Tea with lemon and honey.
Despite its healthy image, tea contains almost as much caffeine as coffee. It is, however, good for the heart - the tannins help the circulation. Lemon provides vitamin C and honey, sweetness - but beware, even this has been linked to cancer.
Beefburger and chips, apple.
For those who believe BSE was dreamed up to stop the march of the Big Mac. Too late to give them up now - the damage was done in the late 1980s before controls on infected cattle were introduced. Chips are the betes noires of the healthy eating lobby, and apples sprayed with Alar, a cancer causing pesticide, worry some.
Sandwich with cottage cheese and salad, orange.
The low-calorie version, but beware if pregnant. Listeria in soft cheese has been linked to miscarriage. Wash the salad or go for organic. Some lettuces have been sprayed with 46 pesticides. Bread should be wholemeal. Oranges have an advantage over apples - they must be peeled.
Calorie-laden, artery clogging and delicious. Hence forbidden.
Bran-laden, gut-blocking and inedible - the doctor's choice.
Lamb chop, market veg, chocolate mouse, unpasteurised cheese.
For two years since the BSE scare broke, we have been making spaghetti bolognese with lamb mince only to discover that we may have been getting those same brain-eating prions from another source. Market veg have the pesticides, commercial gateaux the preservatives, and unpasteurised cheese harbours all manner of bugs.
Ostrich steak, organic veg, fruit salad, water biscuits (no cheese).
Ostrich is the leanest meat and the lowest in fat. It is a king among healthy foods. With organic veg and fruit salad, it is a meal to make your heart specialist swoon. Water biscuits may seem a little dry without cheese but why spoil the healthy effect? Wash them down with a glass of red wine and feel your arteries glow.
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