Professor Hugh Pennington: “One certain thing is that we have been eating scrapied sheep for 200 years and nobody has come to any harm.”
CJD expert warns of ‘BSE in sheep’
A leading vCJD expert who sounded the alarm on BSE has called for the government to “take action right now” over fears that a recently discovered brain disease in sheep and goats could pose a risk to human health.
The disease, known as atypical scrapie, is similar to BSE in cattle and first emerged in 2003. It is now estimated that as many as 82,000 sheep could be infected in the UK and cases have been reported in other European countries.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), has admitted there is a “theoretical risk” but it is not recommending that consumers stop eating sheep or goat meat.
However, vCJD expert Dr Stephen Dealler has demanded an immediate investigation to determine the extent of the disease. Lancaster-based microbiologist Dealler and his colleague Professor Richard Lacey warned the government about the dangers of BSE in cattle six years before ministers conceded there was a risk to humans.
“The worry is, of course, that atypical scrapie will be infectious to humans, but we don’t know,” Dealler said.
“All I can say at the moment is that with atypical scrapie, let’s wait and see – but should we, in this wait-and-see period, be taking more aggressive action?
“Lots of people are saying we shouldn’t just stand here and wait, lots of people are saying take action right now.”
Under current regulations, 20,000 sheep in the UK over 18 months old are tested annually for brain diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). These include atypical scrapie as well as the more common form of scrapie and BSE.
To date, a total of 108 cases of atypical scrapie have been detected via this testing programme. But Dealler called for further testing to be urgently carried out, particularly in younger animals, to determine exactly how widespread it is.
“At the moment, without the data on how much disease is out there, it is difficult to know what to do and how fast to act,” he said. “That is why I say we need a survey right now.
“What they could certainly do is to do surveys and take so many sheep, test them when they are being slaughtered, and then see what proportion of those is atypical form.
“You can find BSE in the brains of cows long, long before they showed any symptoms at all and this will almost certainly be true with scrapie as well.”
He suggested that concerns about the impact on farming were likely to be hindering an expansion in testing.
Current controls to protect consumers mean that parts of animals most likely to carry BSE infectivity – such as brains – are removed from sheep and cattle before entering the food chain. But it is uncertain if atypical scrapie could be carried in other tissue.
Dealler’s calls for an investigation have been backed by consumer groups.
Sue Davies, Which? chief policy adviser, said: “We need urgent answers as to the many uncertainties surrounding this finding as quickly as possible so that there is a better understanding of whether there are any human health implications and, if so, whether existing control measures are adequate.”
An independent scientific committee that advises the government said last week there is “insufficient data, as yet, to make reliable risk assessments for human health or animal health and welfare”. In a statement, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) also concluded that rigorous studies are “critical and urgent” to provide more information.
The FSA is due to initially examine the issue at a board meeting on Thursday . Possible options for precautionary risk reduction measures will be then discussed next month. An FSA spokeswoman said she could not pre-empt discussions by suggesting what – if any – measures might be taken.
“We can’t rule out any theoretical risk, but we won’t be changing our advice at this stage ,” she said. “Based on the information we have, we are not recommending people change their eating habits on sheep or goats.”
Professor Hugh Pennington, president of the Society for General Microbiology and an expert on food standards, said current evidence did not suggest atypical scrapie was a threat to humans.
He added: “The big question is: what implications does it have for human health? As far as we know, there are none basically, but of course we have to keep on doing research on this.
“One certain thing is that we have been eating scrapied sheep for 200 years and nobody has come to any harm.”
05 March 2006