THE BAN on the use of cattle offal in food was extended yesterday because of new research suggesting that bovine spongiform encephalopathy - so-called mad cow disease - can be passed on from calves under six months old.
Until now, ministers have stated that calves' offal such as intestines and thymus - used to make sweetbreads - are safe for human consumption, but the latest research suggests this may not be so.
Veterinary scientists have shown that the agent that causes BSE can infect the small intestine of calves. It is the first time scientists have detected the BSE agent outside the brain and spinal cord of cattle. They are also concerned that the agent may be present in the thymus gland, but believe the consumption of other calves' offals, such as brain and spinal cord, continues to be safe.
The preliminary results of an experiment showing that BSE can be passed from calves to laboratory mice will be reviewed today in Brussels when the European Commission's veterinary advisers meet to discuss BSE and the arguments behind the German case for banning the export of British beef.
Kenneth Calman, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, said the new information did not change his view that eating beef was safe. Eating beef did not increase the risk of developing Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the human equivalent of BSE, he said. 'The risks to human health, if they exist, are minuscule. There is no evidence to change the advice that beef is safe for human consumption and there is no evidence to link BSE with CJD.'
Keith Meldrum, the chief veterinary officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, said that finding the agent for BSE in the intestines of young calves fed on BSE-contaminated food was not surprising. 'Quite clearly the agent has to get access into a calf by some means.'
He acknowledged the damage the new research may do to the British beef industry. 'The potential exists for some interference with the calf trade. We're exporting somewhere between 400,000 and 450,000 calves a year. These are going only for veal production and must be slaughtered in the country of destination by six months of age,' he said.
The Government introduced its ban on the offal of cattle in November 1989, but the ban did not include organs taken from calves under six months of age. John Gummer, the then agriculture minister, said at the time: 'Offals from calves under six months of age will be excluded from these arrangements since any of these offals which may be used for human food will not present a human health hazard.'
Dr Calman said that the new research showed that calves' intestines can contain the BSE agent and a ban is now thought necessary because of public fears rather than a genuine risk to health.
'This research suggests that infectivity can occur outside the nervous system and secondly may occur in animals less than six months old. And for that reason if there was any possibility whatsoever of the infectivity getting into the human food chain for whatever reason then it's a belt and braces approach to be absolutely sure that that cannot occur.'
The latest disclosures are likely to intensify the diplomatic row between Germany and Britain over the threatened unilateral ban by Germany on British beef, writes Colin Brown. Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister, yesterday sought to smooth over the rift in talks at Downing Street with John Major.
He said that if the ban went ahead on 8 July, under German law it could not be implemented for at least six months. In that time, the Commission would have the chance to produce a solution.
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