BSE test on sheep ends in fiasco
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
SCIENTISTS trying to find out whether the national sheep flock is infected with BSE have spent the past four years testing the brains of cows instead of sheep.
The blunder means that all the test results will have to be scrapped, leaving consumers no nearer knowing whether it is safe to eat lamb.
Last month the Government announced that the national flock would have to be slaughtered if sheep were found to be infected.
At that time the interim results from the Institute of Animal Health laboratory in Edinburgh appeared to show that the "sheep" brains contained BSE.
But ministers and officials, who were said privately to be in a state of extreme anxiety, still told the public that they could carry on eating lamb.
The results were then sent to be checked by the Laboratory of the Government Scientist, which discovered that cow brains had been tested by mistake. They were "bovine not ovine", it said.
The laboratory's conclusions were posted - most unusually - on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at 10.30pm on Wednesday.
No attempt was made to alert specialist correspondents who would have understood their importance.
It was also too late for MPs to table questions for Margaret Beckett, the head of the department, to answer in the Commons yesterday.
The results, which would have been highly embarrassing for the Government at any time, caused a storm because of the timing of their release.
David Curry, the chairman of the Commons select committee on environment, food and rural affairs, said it was "out of order" for ministers not to present the results to the Commons.
The manner of the announcement reawoke suspicions aroused by Jo Moore, Stephen Byers's adviser, that the Government "buried" unfavourable news, he said.
"It shows a lack of understanding of the rawness of the nerve endings in the countryside, given the reaction to BSE.
"You would have thought every nerve ending, every hair on the back of their necks would have risen, whatever the result.
"Instead Defra are totally silent the next day and you begin to wonder who is running the show.
"We have them presenting Lord Haskins's report on the rural economy yesterday when here was an issue which could blow the whole rural economy right apart."
A meeting of the Government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory group (Seac), which was due to discuss the results today, has had to be cancelled.
Prof Peter Smith, chairman of Seac said: "We were all completely amazed when the Government laboratory said it could not find any trace of ovine material. It is a fairly disastrous error. It is an amazing result that no one expected."
The study, which cost £217,000, was commissioned by the now defunct Ministry of Agriculture in 1997.
A soup of homogenised brain, supposedly gathered from 2,867 sheep showing symptoms of scrapie, an illness very similar to BSE, was sent to Edinburgh.
The institute said it had expressed concern that the samples might have been contaminated with bovine material when they were gathered for a different purpose in the early 1990s.
Prof Chris Bostock, director of the institute, said: "I am flabbergasted, devastated."
He explained that the institute could not test DNA, which would have shown whether the brains belonged to sheep or cows.
Both the institute and Defra have launched independent studies into how the mistake occurred. These are likely to look at a possibility of a labelling error in the freezers where the samples were kept.
The one positive aspect of the affair is that the national flock is safe for the foreseeable future.
John Thorley, the chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said: "I am delighted that this is the outcome. There is no evidence that there is one shred of BSE in sheep."