London, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Britain has ordered a national ban on the sale of beef on the bone after new scientific tests showed there was a small risk that BSE, or mad cow disease, could get into the human food chain through infected bones.
In a surprise move yesterday, the government announced plans to ban the sale of beef on the bone -- including T-bone steaks, ribs and oxtails -- from shops, supermarkets and restaurants. The ban has plunged the British beef industry into its worst crisis since last year when scientists suggested a probable link between BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a rare but fatal brain condition.
Officially, 23 Britons have died from a form of CJD apparently after eating infected beef. CJD, which causes unsteadiness and abnormal brain activity, is similar to Alzheimer's Disease and, to date, it has targeted younger adults under the age of 40.
The new sales ban will affect only about five percent of the UK beef market, but it is a huge setback to the British Government drive to calm consumer fears about the dangers of eating beef.
The ban will almost certainly reinforce the European Union's determination to maintain its ban on British beef exports, imposed in March last year after the CJD link was first acknowledged.
Britain has recorded by far the largest number of cases of BSE in cattle, a total of 163,000 cases, since the disease was first identified in a cow in southern England in 1985. The disease is believed caused by recycling minced-up cows into cattle feed.
British Agriculture Secretary Jack Cunningham said yesterday that the risk to human health posed by infectivity in cattle bones was "very, very small." He also said "British beef is as safe as any in Europe, and safer than most." But Cunningham conceded that, in the light of the new advice, he could not guarantee that British consumers had not eaten BSE-infected beef in the past 18 months.
In a drive to stamp out BSE, Britain has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of cattle, most of them perfectly healthy, in an exercise that has cost the taxpayer some $2 billion this year alone.
Britain argues that it is doing more than any other country to combat BSE -- which has now appeared in cattle in Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal (the scale of the epidemic in these countries is far smaller).
Within hours of the new ban being announced, butchers cleared their shelves of fresh meat on the bone. Restaurants took T-bone steaks off menus. Chefs said they would no longer use beef bones to make soup. Makers of tinned soups and stock cubes said ingredients were imported from BSE-free herds in New Zealand and Australia.
The British ban, expected to come into force formally next month, requires butchers to debone meat before selling it on to restaurants and shops. The restriction will also apply to imported beef, and to . foods using gelatin -- a product made from beef bones and widely used in foods ranging from stock cubes to biscuits and sweets.
What is the evidence of a health risk from BSE-infected beef bones? The new ban results from tests by British scientists looking for signs that different parts of infected cattle could pass on BSE. Previously, it was thought that only the brain, eye, spinal cord and small intestine could pass the disease into the human food chain.
But, after feeding large doses of BSE to experimental animals, the scientists found clear evidence of infectiousness in nerve tissues within the bones of their spinal column. They also found evidence of infectiousness in the bone marrow of BSE-infected cattle.
The new ban is sure to lead to a new slump in beef consumption in Britain and abroad (in Germany, beef consumption has dropped by one-third). It will also add to the woes of British beef farmers, many of whom have gone bankrupt, or seen their incomes slashed, as consumers switched to pork, lamb and fish. David Naish, president of the national farmers' union, said the news could be "the last straw" for an industry already laid "flat on its back."