Abattoirs report cites anti-BSE test failures
James Meikle, health correspondent
Tuesday October 12, 2004
Failures of anti-BSE tests in abattoirs are continuing nearly 18 years after the deadly disease was first identified in cattle, an independent report confirmed yesterday.
Rules designed to protect consumers from being infected through food by checking animals at higher risk of BSE have not been universally followed and no one knows how many animals have slipped through the testing net.
An independent inquiry commissioned by the government's Food Standards Agency concluded that the risk to human health from the failures was "very low" but also pointed to several shortcomings in the system.
These come at a sensitive time since ministers are shortly to consider whether other controls should be relaxed, as BSE in cattle is expected to almost disappear by 2010. During the 1990s there was ignorance of, and poor adherence to, rules.
Now only cattle under 30 months old are allowed into food because animals that show symptoms are usually far older, and the last known under-30 month case was in 1996. In addition, organs and other body parts most likely to be infected are banned, a measure said to remove more than 99% of infectivity.
The inquiry was launched in June after it was revealed that some so-called casualty animals over two-years-old, which had been culled after injury or illness, were not being tested for the disease.
The investigation, headed by Patrick Wall, professor of food safety at University College, Dublin, and former head of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, pointed out that 2,800 casualty animals that had been tested had not shown any sign of the disease.But it also found that the environment department Defra, the food agency, the Meat Hygiene Service for which it is responsible, and organisations providing vets, many from abroad, especially Spain, all contributed to failures in the system.
Prof Wall said: "It is our view these failures occurred principally because the requirements and the objectives of testing were not clearly agreed nor communicated effectively and not properly monitored."
There were 128 cases of animals known as having slipped through the net and 133 possible further cases. But there may have been more, the report said.
Some vets had been using their own judgment as to which animals should be tested and not recording minor injuries or abnormalities. The exact level of failure to test against the current instruction cannot therefore be determined with any certainty, as no records exist for these animals.
Instructions had been changed five times and the most significant alteration, that vets should not have the right to exercise professional judgment, had not been flagged up by the authorities.
In addition, vets seeking further guidance were given inconsistent replies. However British rules about what were casualty animals went far further than the European Union controls demanded, so that sometimes they were not practical.
The report said there must be more supervision and training of vets, of which there was a 25% annual turnover. Vets from overseas often did not have practical experience of British abattoirs. More generally, vets felt isolated.
The food agency board will consider the report on Thursday. Chairman Sir John Krebs said: "While it is reassuring that the risks from these failings is very low, the agency expects the proper implementation of all BSE controls and surveillance records."