19 January 2001

FSAs red faces after BSEgaffe

By Shelley Wright

FOOD safety officials have been forced to apologise after issuing a potentially devastating statement suggesting that measures to protect humans from BSE are ineffective.

The Food Standards Agency Scotland was forced to issue a statement in a bid to calm consumer concern after an English animal destined for human consumption at a Scottish abattoir was found to be the offspring of a cow that had developed BSE.

All meat from the animal was recovered apart from the kidneys – organs which have never been found to contain the BSE agent in any animal.

The food agency issued a statement saying it was seeking answers from MAFF about how the animal had reached a slaughterhouse when all offspring from BSE cases are meant to have been traced and culled.

Government and its BSE advisers have always insisted that existing controls ensure the removal of every potentially infective part of a cattle carcass. But the food agency blundered when a note accompanying the statement said: "By removing these parts of the animal, 95% of infectivity is removed."

The suggestion that 5% of infective material was not removed set alarm bells ringing at the Meat and Livestock Commission which immediately contacted the food agency. An MLC spokesman said: "We have never heard of this figure before. We can find no previous reference in any of the literature to suggest that SRM controls are not 100% effective."

The Scottish NFU also contacted the agency, demanding clarification. A spokesman for the union said: "As far as we are concerned, SRM removal ensures that every bit of potentially infective material is removed."

The Scottish Executive and MAFF refused to comment, insisting that food safety matters were now entirely the responsibility of the FSA. After repeated calls to the FSA Scotland office in Aberdeen, an official finally admitted that the figure was an error. SRM controls were fully effective, he conceded.

Asked whether or not the agency would issue a further press statement to highlight the mistake, the official said it would "just depend how many calls we get".

The Scottish NFU said the mistake could have had potentially disastrous results in terms of public perception. "This highlights how food scares can start and is a perfect example of why everyone needs to be extremely careful when it comes to anything related to BSE," a spokesman said.

&#8226 Irelands mass slaughter of up to 500,000 over-30-month-old cattle under the European Union "purchase for destruction" scheme, has been denounced as immoral by the head of the Irish Food Safety Authority.

Patrick Wall said that thousands of cattle that "are perfectly safe to eat" are included in the cull. "What is being destroyed is prime beef, and that is immoral.

"This is a market support measure, aimed at eliminating the beef mountain, not a health measure," said Dr Wall. "In my view, the money being spent on the cull would be much better used in finding markets for the beef."

Eighteen plants are operating the six-month cull, with producers guaranteed a floor price of IR90p/lb. The cost to the Irish taxpayers will be about £200m. But processors are urging greater financial support for the testing alternative offered by the EU scheme, so that farmers will opt for that rather than have carcasses destroyed.