"Scrapie, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) of sheep and goats, has been known for over 200 years. There is no evidence that it is linked to Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD) in humans. CJD occurs at approximately the same level in countries with and without scrapie.
"I have recently received advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that BSE could, theoretically, become established in the sheep flock. They note that in experiments (the results of which have been published) one out of six sheep experimentally challenged orally with BSE brain material succumbed to an encephalopathy; and that when their brain material was tested in mice the same strain type as BSE was found. They note also the possibility that some sheep could have been exposed to feed contaminated with the BSE agent before the ruminant feed ban was introduced in 1988.
"The Committee point out that there is no evidence of BSE occurring naturally in the sheep flock. However the SEAC concern is, whilst there is no evidence to this effect, scrapie might be masking BSE in the sheep flock. On the basis of present knowledge SEAC have made three recommendations.
"Firstly, that the Government should consider this issue further with EU partners. We have started that process. We are keeping in close contact with the French Government, whose scientific committee equivalent to SEAC has made certain recommendations on the basis of the laboratory evidence about BSE in sheep, and of concerns about scrapie. At the Agriculture Council on 22 July Commissioner Fischler announced that the Commission intends to formulate proposals for the removal of certain offals of sheep, goats and deer from the human and animal food chain. These proposals are to be considered initially by the Standing Veterinary Committee in early August, and then by other EU expert committees.
"SEAC's second recommendation was that the Government should give early consideration to removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months, from the human food chain. The agriculture departments are today issuing for consultation a proposal for the heads of all sheep and goats to be removed and destroyed in the same way as specified bovine material. This measure would go rather further than SEAC suggested, taking into account the practical difficulty of distinguishing the age of sheep at slaughter. It should not have a major economic impact as the vast majority of sheep's heads are already destroyed. It is worth noting that sheepmeat for human consumption comes predominantly from young lambs under 12 months.
"We intend to reach a final decision in the light of responses to this consultation and to progress of EU discussion. Action on this issue at EU level would be preferable, but it is desirable that these measures are put in place promptly. There is no direct threat to human health; the action now being proposed is precautionary, to respond to what appears no more than a theoretical risk.
"SEAC's third recommendation is that further research should be done to establish the levels of scrapie occurring naturally in sheep and to further investigate the risks of BSE transmission to the UK sheep flock. We accept this. Some relevant research has already begun.
I emphasise that these steps are being taken out of an abundant of caution. There is no direct threat to human health. With the exception of the consumption of brains, there is absolutely no reason for anybody to change their eating habits. I repeat: there is no evidence at all that in field conditions BSE has got into the national flock; but as that possibility cannot be wholly excluded we are proposing to take these precautionary measures.
A copy of the press release (including the full text of the SEAC advice) is available on the Web at: