London, 11 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Britain faces a possible new health scare following claims by a government scientist that "mad cow" disease may have spread to the country's sheep flocks
Jeffrey Almond, chairman of a government watchdog committee investigating "mad cow" disease, said this week there is a "distinct possibility" that sheep are now infected. But other scientists say the risk to human health is "infinitesimal."
"Mad cow" disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease that cripples cattle and can be passed on to humans who eat infected beef. Some 27 Britons have died from its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a rare brain condition. All of them are thought to have eaten BSE-infected beef.
Britain has recorded by far the largest number of BSE cases in cattle, but the disease has also appeared in a number of herds in Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. But the number of cases in these countries is far smaller.
The claim by Almond that BSE could now be present in sheep has sent a chill through farming circles since he was the expert who correctly predicted two years ago that Britain's cattle herds would have to be decimated to halt the spread of BSE. Since then, hundreds of thousands of cattle have been slaughtered.
Almond told a BBC radio program for farmers that BSE-infected material was fed to sheep flocks in the 1980s. He said it is possible to transmit BSE to sheep experimentally, and that the disease may go undetected as its symptoms are similar to another sheep illness.
So far only nine animals of Britain's 42 million sheep had been tested for BSE and while none proved infected, scientists say the number of tests was far too small to rule out that BSE has got into sheep.
British officials played down any fear of a new food emergency, saying that no-one is at risk of contracting CJD from eating mutton or lamb, and no further action is needed to protect the public.
Anthony Andrews, a former senior lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College in London, claims he saw an unusual pattern of brain damage among sheep at a British farm about 10 years ago.
He concluded that mad cow disease could have passed into sheep -- possibly through contaminated animal food. But he also said control measures on cattle and sheep taken by the government in the wake of BSE crisis have ensured that the risk to humans from eating British mutton and lamb is now "infinitesimal."
He said five generations of sheep have passed by since his first observations in 1988-89 and, if there were any major BSE problem in British herds, the signs of infection would have emerged by now.
The claims that British sheep may be infected by BSE have caused dismay among farmers, who now fear a slump in lamb and mutton consumption, as consumers switch to pork or fish. The farming industry is already in trouble, as the BSE beef crisis has caused many farmers to go bankrupt or to see their income slashed.
The European Commission is playing it cautiously, saying it will be considering what action to recommend on consumption of sheep meat as part of a general review, but it considers the risk is small.
The president of Britain's Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, says that the livelihood of his members is again being damaged by "scare stories" dragged up by scientists, and that precautionary measures are already in place regulating the processing of sheep meat.