Transcript of Radio 4 debate 10th Jan 2002

 

Sir John Krebs FSA, and Prof Tim Lang, Thames Valley University

 

The spectre of sheep with BSE has come back to haunt us, this time it is a group of researchers at Imperial College who have warned that in the worst case scenario up to 150,000 people could die from vCJD. The problem is we still don't know whether they do. Last year it turned out that Scientists who were meant to have been studying sheeps' brains actually had cows' brains under their microscopes which was a disaster. How seriously should we be taking this latest research? Well, Professor Tim Lang at Thames Valley University is on the line and so is Sir John Krebs, the Chairman of the Food Standards Agency.

 

Radio 4: What's your interpretation of this Professor Lang?

 

Lang: Well I welcome very much the fact that the FSA has conducted or paid for this research, it is very good, but like many I do believe it is a shame we are having to do this so late, twenty years on from when it should have been done. I think there are some fundamental policy options that this paper raises, are we going to go as fast as possible for cleaning up the source, cleaning up our sheep flock, going for what the research paper calls the New Zealand option', or are we going to continue as we are doing at the moment, which is cutting out potentially infected bits of the sheep in controlling tissues and restricting age.

 

Radio 4: Just to be perfectly clear about the New Zealand' option, cleaning up the flock, that means killing lots of sheep doesn't it?

 

Lang: Well, not necessarily it means we must start as Professor Ferguson and his team say right at the end of their very good paper we have got to have clean sources. What that means is that we have got to have research in order to test whether we have got BSE in flocks, we haven't got that yet, this is a mathematical modelling job which is being done here by Prof. Alex Ferguson 

 

Radio 4:  so not really lab research

 

Lang: No, but what we could start doing, is start getting clean guaranteed BSE free flocks rebred in Britain, it is that sort of strategy, I just think it is necessary Armageddon.

 

Radio 4: So John, that would seem terribly sensible, indeed essential to many people?

 

Krebs: Yes, I think we should be clear what this new study does show. It is the theoretical study which builds on what the FSA has always said, that there is the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep. We don't yet know whether sheep have got BSE or whether it is still there. This doesn't provide new evidence that BSE is there, as Tim Lang says, one option for the future is to try to breed sheep that are resistant to BSE or scrapie 

 

Radio 4: . Will you be calling for that .

 

Krebs: Indeed, we have been calling for that and DEFRA which is the lead Department for responsibility in this area is instituting the so called National Scrapie Plan which will over time produce a national flock which is resistant to Scrapie and BSE, two closely related diseases, and will, as Tim put it, clean up the flock.

 

Radio 4: Let me just asked Tim Lang if he is happy that DEFRA is responsible

Lang: Well no, I'm not John, one of the sorry things that this saga has told us, in fact the reason why Sir John Krebs is here is because we couldn't trust the Public Health Controls to be run by a ministry in charge of Production. Indeed the irony, as Sir John was just saying DEFRA the replacement for MAFF is still in charge of BSE policy. Now, I actually think one of the good things, here we have got the FSA who are actually doing its job taking the Public Health role, I am sad that the Department of Health is silent, but one of the things that this is really building up to is the need to have a decision by ministers about who is going to be in charge of BSE policy, should it be DEFRA or should it be the FSA

Radio 4: Do you agree with that, Sir John?

 

Krebs: I think what we need is joined up Government to use the well known phrase, different parts of Government have different responsibilities, the FSA clearly has responsibility for Public Health protection, and I think the important point to make here is that the breeding plans to clean up the flock is a longer term plan, it is going to take many many years, the key question is whether we need to do more to protect the Public Health this purely theoretical risk at the moment. What the FSA is doing in this regard is to hold a public debate. We held a public meeting just before Christmas with all the stakeholders, the foundations and the Scientists to look at the evidence and look at whether we need to do more. We are gong to continue that debate and the study by the Imperial College group is a helpful piece to the jigsaw explaining what might have happened under a certain set of circumstances 

 

Radio 4: And you are in no doubt that more has to be done and urgently

 

Lang: Oh absolutely, Sir John is absolutely right I mean this is a very good study and very useful, I have read it very carefully but one of the key things that comes out of it is that it says look we just basically don't know, we are still as ever acting on uncertainties, but it does say look the infectivity could be such that if there is BSE in the sheep flock the human health implications are greater than they were from cattle and that is the Sword of Damocles hanging over us all

 

Radio 4: Thank you both very much.