26 August 1997
BSE cases in Europe go unreported
By Mark Bradley, PA News
THE Governments argument that mad cow disease is not just a British problem appears to be backed by a report from leading European animal health experts.
The vets conclusion – that mainland European Union countries have only reported one-sixth of their bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) cases.
The Government and UK farmers have long maintained that other European countries have underestimated the scale of BSE infection in their cattle herds. And the study, carried out by three respected experts on animal disease, appears to have vindicated the Governments stance that strict anti-BSE controls should be in place across Europe.
More than 55,400 cattle were exported from Britain to other EU countries for breeding between 1985 and 1989, until exports were halted to curb the spread of the disease, the report said.
If these cattle had remained in the UK, an estimated 1,642 of them would have been likely to have contracted BSE, the vets are said to have concluded.
Yet European countries have only admitted to a total of only 285 cases, most them in Switzerland, where authorities have also maintained that the number of cases elsewhere in Europe are far higher than the number admitted to.
Scientists fear the huge number of apparently unreported cases may lead to BSE spreading in Europe, as meat from infected animals could be used in animal food – leading to more cases, many of which will again go unreported.
Many of the worst apparent offenders appear to be countries where the campaigns against British beef have been the strongest since March last year.
In Germany, the expected number of cases by now should be 243, yet the number so far officially reported has been just five – about 2%. Spain has reported none, where 54 have been expected; Portugal has reported 61 instead 262; and the Irish Republic has reported 188, as opposed to the anticipated number of 911.
So far, some 168,000 cattle have died in the UK from BSE since 1988, but a total of only 515 cases have been reported from all other parts of the world, including the EU – despite the exports of cattle from Britain during the 1980s.
The research findings were published in The Veterinary Record, the official journal of the British Veterinary Association. The research was carried out by John Wilesmith, head of epidemiology at the Governments central veterinary laboratory, Dr Bram Schreuder of Hollands Institute of Animal Science and Health, and Professor O C Straub, of Germanys Federal Research Centre for Virus Diseases of Animals.
Farm minister Dr Jack Cunningham, speaking on BBC Radio 4s Today programme at the weekend, said the standards of reporting and recording BSE cases varied widely across the Continent.
“There is a wide variation in practice in the European Union. Some countries actually appear to have a financial incentive for their farmers not to report suspected cases of BSE, which does seem bizarre, if it is true,” Dr Cunningham said.