the Campaign for Independent Food
PO Box 16141 London SE1 4ZH
Telephone: 020 8740 7194
Report of the core stakeholder group on BSE and sheep
Honest Food campaigns to defend and promote diversity in food production, consumer choice and rural livelihoods. In our work we have noted that all three of these are threatened more than anything by inappropriate regulation and unnecessary food scares. By this we do not mean that there should be no regulation and no attention should be paid to food safety and consumer protection; that would clearly be an absurd position to take. However, we do feel that the Food Standards Agency should take seriously the plight of the small and medium-sized food producer and pay more attention to consumer choice. We do not, therefore, feel that it is appropriate to treat the purely theoretical risk of BSE in the national sheep flock as if this were a real risk that could have a real effect on people’s lives.
The precautionary principle on which this report of the core stakeholders is based is, in our opinion, the surest path to over-regulation and stifling of initiative in food production. This is particularly lamentable as food production, particularly that of meat and meat produce, has been badly hit in the last few years by genuine problems like BSE in bovines, swine fever and, above all, the catastrophic FMD epidemic and its handling. We do not feel that strong emphasis on a very theoretical disease and its even more theoretical consequences for human health is the way forward. We should like to point out that even with bovine BSE there is no reliable scientific evidence as to the real relationship between this disease and vCJD. In the case of lamb and mutton, the problem does not arise, as there have been no reported incidents of naturally occurring BSE in sheep. There have been a few cases of artificially induced disease. The long study of brains that would, possibly, have given us the answer to the question was unsuccessful because of the use of bovine rather than ovine material. So the risk remains theoretical but its management, discussed at length in this report, could have a practical negative effect on food producers in this country.
While we agree that the priority of developing “a rapid diagnostic test for BSE in sheep” is of importance, we should like to know more about what the intended subsequent actions will be. Doubt has been cast by a number of scientists and veterinarians at the suggested method of dealing with scrapie, for instance. Eradication of that disease through eradication of certain genotypes would not necessarily work as there is, at present, very inadequate knowledge about the various types of scrapie and the interrelationship between them. What consideration is given to the need to study scrapie and develop either a cure or, more practically, a vaccine against it? Slaughter of animals cannot remain the only answer to these serious diseases, particularly when, as in the case of scrapie, they have no effect on human health.
We are disturbed by the proposed campaign of warnings and messages that will be based on vague scientific knowledge and, as the report says several times, no evidence of disease, but which can start a certain panic in consumers. This could be particularly true of parents of babies and young children, who are necessarily more anxious. It is true the vCJD has more often struck down young people and is, therefore, a particularly tragic disease. It is also true that vCJD is “100% unacceptable to the family concerned “ (does this mean that other diseases that strike down children and young people or accidents that kill them are in some way acceptable to families?). However, it is also true that a theoretical risk does not kill. What will be achieved by vaguely worded warnings that will, nevertheless, disturb people without having any basis in scientific evidence?
We are also disturbed by the proposed removal of sheep intestine from the food chain. As it is clear from the report, there is no need for this – this is action for the sake of action. However, as mentioned above, action on the basis of theoretical risk can result in practical hardship, in this case to specialist producers, whose businesses depend on availability of sheep intestine.
Altogether, Honest Food feels that a report of this nature, based on precautionary principle and no scientific evidence, would have a harmful effect on food production and, consequently, on consumer choice and rural livelihoods.
Helen Szamuely (Dr)
Director, Honest Food