1 September 2000

Views split as study says BSE can cross the species barrier

By Alistair Driver

THE controversy over whether livestock other than cattle can harbour BSE without showing symptoms appears set to continue following huge publicity surrounding fresh research by scientists.

Research showing that rodents can theoretically be infected by BSE-type diseases has led to speculation that sheep, pigs and poultry as well as cattle can be infected with BSE.

The research was led by John Collinge of the Medical Research Council Prion Unit. A spokeswoman for the unit said similar research projects were lined up for the future.

Prof Collinges team, working at St Marys Hospital, London, found that mice infected with hamster scrapie lived into old age without showing the disease. But when their brains were injected into other hamsters and mice, the disease was passed on. This prompted fears that BSE can cross the species barrier more easily than previously thought and lead to front page headlines in the national press.

The Food Standards Agency played down the significance of the findings for human health. Agency chairman John Krebs said there was no need for people to change their eating habits.

However, the study will be scrutinised at the end of September by the governments Spongiform Enc-ephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC). The European Union scientific steering committee also wants to assess the research.

Scientists and farmers were angered at the way the media reported the research. James Black, vice-chairman of the National Pig Association, said: "This sort of report can get into peoples sub-conscious, where reasonable argument does not exist and the feeling that there might be a risk can affect buying decisions."

However, Welsh Assembly member and livestock farmer Glyn Davies said that the research reinforced his opinion that anti-BSE controls should not be relaxed.

That view was backed by the Consumers Association, one of the bodies which would be consulted before any BSE measures would loosened.

But the Meat and Livestock Commission said the research did not contribute any new knowledge to prion diseases. "The prion used by Prof. Collinge in his experiment with hamsters and mice was a form of scrapie, not BSE." &#42