5 December 1997

Beef industry rocks as minister bans bone-in sales

By Shelley Wright

FARM minister Jack Cunningham, acting on scientific advice, has announced that all beef from cattle over six months old, whether produced domestically or imported, must be sold boneless.

Latest response

In a statement to parliament on Wednesday, Dr Cunningham said he was responding to the latest advice from SEAC, the Governments BSE scientific committee. New evidence, from experiments with cattle fed large doses of BSE-infected material, indicated that infectivity could be detected in nervous tissue called the dorsal root ganglia, which lie within the bones of the spinal column.

"Further new findings, which are still being evaluated, indicate that infectivity may also be found in the bone marrow in cattle which are at a very late stage of disease and are already showing clinical symptoms," he said.

In both cases, infectivity was found only in animals over 30-months old – which would be excluded from the human food chain anyway. And he stressed that muscle and blood had again been tested, with no signs of any infectivity.

Small risk

SEAC had told the minister that any risk was extremely small and had suggested three options: either telling the public the risks and leaving consumers to decide for themselves; requiring all beef from cattle over six months old to be de-boned; or de-boning only beef from cattle aged between 24-30 months old.

Dr Cunningham said he had chosen the second option. "It would not be acceptable to allow tissues shown to transmit BSE to remain within the human food chain," he insisted.

Industry and consumers would be consulted on the proposal, with de-boning allowed to take place at cutting plants, butchers shops, catering outlets and other commercial premises.

But bones would not be allowed to be sold, given to consumers or used in food preparation.

He stressed that the action was purely precautionary, and accepted that it would come as a further blow to beef producers. "My message to them is that this government is acting firmly and rapidly to protect consumer confidence, which is in the fundamental interests of the beef industry."

Belt and braces

NFU president Sir David Naish said 95% of beef sold in Britain was already boneless. He hoped the public would be reassured by the governments "belt and braces" approach to ensure there was no possible risk to human health, but admitted that the initial reaction from consumers to the announcement was one of great concern.

He accepted that the move would inevitably raise doubts across Europe which could delay any lifting of the beef export ban.