26 October 2001

Catastrophe

just averted

The governments handling

of the BSE-test fiasco

shows DEFRA may not be

so different from MAFF after

all. Alistair Driver reveals

how Britains 40m sheep

came within a whisker of

annihilation

MARGARET Beckett was desperate. The back shelf of an old fridge in a dusty laboratory could hold the key to the governments bungled tests for BSE in sheep, the DEFRA secretary insisted to MPs.

"To put it rather brutally," Mrs Beckett told the House of Commons on Monday (Oct 22), "would the sample that should have been sent to the LGC be discovered at the back of the fridge in some dark corner of Institute for Animal Health."

It was another sorry episode in a sorry saga. Just days before, the governments BSE advisers were due to reveal the results of tests that many people believed would trigger another food scare. The Food Standards Agency had already warned that research on sheep brains from the early 1990s "could be compatible with BSE having been in sheep at that time".

Everyone held their breath, knowing the final results could mean Armageddon for the sheep industry. Just one month ago, junior DEFRA minister Elliot Morley had unveiled plans under which 40m ewes, rams and lambs – the entire national flock – could be slaughtered if BSE was discovered in sheep.

Farmers in the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh hills, the Lake District and the West Country held their breath. Over the centuries, their families had done little wrong other than produce some of Britains best traditional lamb. Then, as they waited to learn their fate, it emerged that someone had made a blunder of barely credible proportions.

Last minute DNA analysis on samples revealed that scientists involved in the four-year experiment costing almost £250,000 had mistakenly been testing cattle brains instead of sheep brains. Peter Smith, chairman of the governments BSE advisory committee, hastily cancelled the presentation of the results. The mix-up was a "disastrous error," he said.

Back at DEFRA, civil servants urged Mrs Beckett to hold an emergency media briefing to announce the bad news. But she proceeded to turn a crisis into a farce by over-ruling her Press officers. Instead of taking their advice, she posted an obscure Press release alluding to the failed tests on the DEFRA web-site at about 10.30pm.

As the news gathered pace, attention turned to the Institute of Animal Health, which had been commissioned by MAFF in 1997 to investigate whether BSE was present in UK sheep in the early 1990s. IAH director Chris Bostock told farmers weekly he was "devastated" when he learned that his departments experiments had failed.

The brain material had been collected at Veterinary Investigation Centres for a government study at the institute on how rendering procedures affect scrapie. Material from a pool of 2867 scrapie infected brains was injected into mice to look for the presence of the BSE agent at the institutes Edinburgh laboratory.

Samples were then made into a paste and then rendered by Doncaster-based company Prosper de Mulder before going to Edinburgh for analysis. But farmers will be keen to know how the samples were originally collected. They will also consider whether contamination could have happened during the rendering process in which other animal material was used.

The key could lie in the way the paste it was handled, stored and labelled at Edinburgh during and between the rendering experiment in the early 1990s and the 1997 BSE experiment. There has been speculation that the fiasco could have centred on the simple omission of the letter "b" on a label of bovine material stored near the ovine material.

But an even bigger mystery to many inside and outside the scientific community is why the government failed to ask for the samples to be tested for contamination earlier. Mac Johnston, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College, said: "The starting point of any scientific research should be to check the material being used so you know what it is. And then double check."

Prof Bostock claims the governments Veterinary Laboratory Agency made a vital error. He was so concerned about possible contamination that he asked VLA scientists to conduct tests last December. "From the outset we knew that the brains were collected for the rendering experiment under conditions that could not guarantee freedom from contamination from BSE-infected cattle," Prof Bostock told farmers weekly.

He added: "We offered to send them our samples but they said they would use samples they had collected from the same rendering experiment. But they did not use those samples and did not find bovine material in the ones they did test." Prof Bostock says he has emails and letters in which VLA scientists admit to the mistake. But a DEFRA spokesman has defended the agency, claiming that Prof Bostocks own institute is at fault because it did not send the appropriate samples for testing. "The VLA was never sent the samples by the IAH so it tested a similar pool of its own," the DEFRA spokesman said.

Mr Bostock said he continued to press the government to commission further tests this year after the VLA failed to allay his fears. The Food Standards Agency, government BSE advisors and officials from the devolved Scottish and Welsh administrations also requested more tests. Finally, earlier this month, DEFRA agreed.

DEFRA and the institute have both launched separate investigations into the fiasco which are likely to focus on three basic issues. The first is whether the LGC results mean the institute had been using cattle brains all along. The second is how the samples were mixed-up and the third is why it took so long before the samples were cross-checked.

A little-known private company, formally known as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, was asked to cross-check the samples for bovine contamination. Now called LGC, it is a laboratory specialising in DNA-based analysis. The results were astounding. For four years, it appears, scientists had been testing cow brains.

The DEFRA spokesman said no-one realised the extent of the problem. He added: "Everyone was aware of possible contamination with bovine material, but there was nothing pointing to the fact that the whole sample was cattle. The tests were merely to examine the extent of the problem before concluding the findings."

An independent audit is now examining whether the samples cross-checked by LGC are the same as those used in the IAH experiments. Prof Bostock is very concerned about the discrepancy between the LGC results which show 100% bovine material and its own "more limited" tests. These indicate that at least some sheep brains were tested.

If the mix-up is confirmed, tracing the point at which the bovine brain samples were mistaken for sheep brain samples could be a much harder task. There are a number of points when the mix-up may have occurred and much will depend on the quality of record keeping during the whole process.

While scientists and government officials squabble, farmers say the the episode continues to cause "incalculable damage" to the sheep industry. National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley wants a public apology and assurances that there is no evidence of BSE in sheep. But like everyone else, he is still waiting to find out what went wrong.

Testing times… The sheep-cattle brain mix-up has apalled the industry.