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Watchdog backs easing of BSE curbs

James Meikle, health correspondent
Wednesday July 7, 2004
The Guardian

Food safety watchdogs say one of the main anti-BSE measures governing consumption of beef and other cattle meat should be removed and replaced by testing of cows being used for food.

The current ban on all but a handful of cattle over 30 months old being eaten has been in place for eight years and ministers have already delayed decisions on changing the rules because of continuing scientific uncertainty over the level of risk from older cows being allowed into food.

The board of the Food Standards Agency yesterday confirmed its view that the Department of Health should lift the ban, but only after an independent group was convinced a robust method of testing was in place for older animals.

The problems of assessing the risk from of changing anti-BSE rules have been compounded by continuing flaws in existing measures meant to protect consumers from contracting the human form of BSE, variant CJD. Only yesterday the Commons public accounts committee criticised serious shortcomings in the system meant to identify cattle and track their movements between farms and to abattoirs.

But the agency chairman, Sir John Krebs, said lifting the 30-month rule remained a "proportionate" response to the threat from infected cattle, even allowing for the uncertainties.

Even if ministers decide to accept the recommendations, the ban is likely to remain in place at least until early next year. More than 140 Britons have already died from the disease since 1995, with infected meat being the prime suspect, but estimates of the future toll have varied. One recent analysis based on checks on appendixes and tonsils removed in routine operations suggests the eventual toll may be 3,800.

Other estimates have put it both far higher and far lower, but FSA officials believe relaxing the rules should only increase risk of infection by a tiny amount. They say the other main control measures, removing the body parts of animals most at risk of carrying infection, and banning mammalian meat and bone meal from animal feed, will continue to protect the public.

The FSA made its decision after a risk assessment by specialists on Seac, the anti-BSE advisory committee.

Plans to curb promotion of "unhealthy" foods high in fat, sugar and salt, to children were also confirmed by the FSA board. These include the provision of healthy alternatives to crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks in school vending machines.