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Dr Christl Donnelly
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Wednesday, 13 December, 2000, 22:32 GMT
British beef 'safer than French'
Computer BBC
Dr Donnelly says good science must underpin policy
By BBC News Online's Mark Smith

One of the UK's leading experts on the BSE epidemic has calculated that British beef is far safer to eat than French meat.

This year, eating beef in Britain was safer than it was in France

Dr Christl Donnelly, Imperial researcher
In the last year, at least 24, and probably as many as 52, highly infectious animals in the late stages of developing BSE were slaughtered and eaten in France. That compares to just one or two animals in Britain.

The findings are based on the number of reported cases in France, where 135 animals have been found to have the full-blown disease this year. Britain, in contrast, has reported 1,165 confirmed cases this year - but crucially no animals older than 30 months are eaten.

The research comes as the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, announced all cattle over 30 months old in France will be tested for Mad Cow Disease from next month.

This means France will begin testing older cattle six months earlier than the 1 July start date for such tests across the European Union.

The risk of BSE in France is much higher because older cows, which are much more likely to be harbouring the infectious prion protein that causes the disease, are still consumed.

Dr Christl Donnelly, of the Imperial College School of Medicine in London, told the BBC: "This year, eating beef in Britain was safer than it was in France, and that's the case because of all the controls that have been brought in in the UK."

British experience

Her research estimates that 7,300 animals have been infected since 1987 in France.

The vast majority of these would have been routinely slaughtered for food while still young; and most would have shown little or no sign of BSE infection.

Beef AP
Sales of French beef have been hit hard
Her estimates, reported in the journal Nature, are the first which try to accurately reflect under-reporting by farmers.

This is a highly controversial area which has already led to many contradictory claims and counter-claims in France and elsewhere.

In effect, she looked at the numbers of cows in each age group as reported in France and compared these with what you might expect based on evidence from the British epidemic.

Even if it is assumed that all cases have been reported by farmers, at least 1,200 cows are thought to have been infected in France since 1987. And at least 24 animals in the late stages of BSE were eaten over the last year.

Risk assessment

The higher figures though (7,300 infected and 52 highly infectious animals eaten in the year 2000) are likely to be accurate, Dr Donnelly says.

The main impact of the findings is to call into question the safety of beef eaten in France. The authorities there may have to consider again if a ban on eating older cows is justified, although that could prove hugely expensive and unpopular as it has in Britain.

There will be those in the UK who will use the research to argue again that the continuing ban on imports of British beef into France is unjustifiable under present circumstances.

However, the information cannot be used to argue in favour of a ban on the importation into the UK of French beef.

It is illegal to import cows older than 30 months from France anyway, and young beef from France will still be less risky than the home-reared product.

"There has been a great deal of speculation about the relative risks in different BSE-affected countries," Dr Donnelly said.

"But when we do risk assessment it should be based on the evidence, and the evidence as analysed in this matter shows there is a lower risk in British beef eaten this year than there is French beef."

Important assumptions

Sir John Krebs, chairman of the UK's Food Standards Agency, has commented on Dr Donnelly's research. He noted that her conclusions depended on a number of uncertain assumptions - one being that BSE has followed similar patterns in France as in Britain.

There is no risk case for a ban on beef imports from France to the United Kingdom

Sir John Krebs, FSA chairman
Even accepting her evidence, Sir John said there was "no risk case for a ban on beef imports from France to the United Kingdom".

Sir John also pointed out that the research focused on carcass meat. But he added: "Comparable if not greater risks to UK consumers could arise from the import of meat products (such as pates and salamis) which usually contain beef, as it is difficult to ascertain the age and provenance of any cattle-derived contents."

He said new European Commission measures being brought in next year should significantly protect consumers from BSE in the future.

But French officials said on Wednesday that even if the figures were correct, the existing rules on the slaughter of animals meant infected parts - such as brains and nervous tissue - would not end up on the supermarket shelves.

Yves Salmon, of the French Farmers' Union, said: "It does not change anything about the safety of French beef meat, as we are only eating muscle of animals and eliminating risk materials."

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See also:

05 Dec 00 | Europe
France reveals new mad cow tally
04 Dec 00 | Europe
EU agrees anti-BSE action
30 Nov 00 | Europe
Europe's growing concern
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