In a statement to the House of Commons, Agriculture Minister Dr Jack Cunningham said:
"With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement on BSE. The first priority of this Government is protection of the consumer. I am making this announcement in response to the latest advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), which met yesterday, 2 December, and to outline the action which I intend to take on a strictly precautionary basis.
"Madam Speaker, I shall be publishing SEAC's advice in full, and a copy has been placed in the Library of the House. SEAC has reviewed new evidence which will be published in the scientific literature in due course. This evidence has emerged from an experiment designed to re-check which parts of cattle may contain BSE infectivity. Under these experimental conditions, in which animals were fed large doses of BSE by mouth, my scientists have found infectivity in nervous tissues called the dorsal root ganglia which lie within the bones of the spinal column and would be left with the bone when meat is cut off the spine. The dorsal root ganglia are not currently covered by the specified bovine material (SBM) restrictions.
"Further new findings which are still being evaluated indicate that infectivity may also be found in the bone marrow in cattle which are at a very late stage of disease and are already showing clinical symptoms. "SEAC has emphasised that the risk is very small. The committee has suggested that there are three possible alternative courses of action.
"I will therefore be consulting as rapidly as possible with consumers and the industry on proposals to implement the second of the options indicated by SEAC: deboning of all beef, whether from home supplies or imported, coming from cattle over 6 months old before it is sold to the consumer. It is helpful that, currently, only about 5% of beef is consumed on the bone. The proposals would allow deboning to take place in cutting plants, butchers' shops, catering establishments or other commercial premises but would not allow the bones to be sold, given to consumers or used in the preparation of food. That is in line with SEAC advice on this point.
"This action, which is being taken on a precautionary basis, will ensure that UK consumers continue to be given the highest protection possible against the risks from BSE, while we press ahead with our determined action to eradicate this disease completely from our cattle herd.
"I know that this announcement will come as a further disappointment to our beef producers. My message to them is that this Government is acting firmly and rapidly to protect consumer confidence, which is in the fundamental interests of the beef industry. We are maintaining a high level of support through the Over Thirty Month Scheme, direct aid and other measures, worth nearly £1.5 billion this year.
"Madam Speaker, I regret that this important matter was the subject of a leak earlier today, and this resulted in me having to respond to the high level of media interest prior to making this statement in the House. I did not. of course, give the details of the statement."
The official advice given to Ministers by SEAC is as follows:
SEAC Advice To Ministers On Dorsal Root Ganglia
1. Until recently BSE infectivity has been detected by mouse bio-assay only in terminal ileum, brain, eye (retina) and spinal cord of infected cattle. Up until now all tissues in which infectivity has been detected have been removed from the human food chain as specified bovine material (SBM).
2. In an on-going experiment conducted by MAFF, cattle deliberately infected with BSE have been killed at regular intervals as the disease develops. In this experiment infectivity has now been detected in the dorsal root ganglia (DRG), the trigeminal ganglia and in the bone marrow, though the bone marrow result is only provisional and requires further results before definite conclusions can be drawn. The trigeminal ganglion is in the skull and, as the whole head is now classified as SBM, no trigeminal ganglia enter the food chain.
3. In the experimental animals infected with a large dose of BSE by mouth at 4 months of age, clinical signs developed at 39 months of age i.e. 35 months post-infection. Infectivity has been demonstrated in dorsal root ganglia at 32 months post-infection but not at 26 months post-infection. Thus infectivity has been detected 3 months but not 9 months before clinical symptoms develop. To add a margin of safety in assessing risks to the human population it is assumed that infectivity may be present 7 months prior to the onset of clinical symptoms.
4. DRG are swellings on the sensory branches of the nerves near the spinal cord. They are surrounded by the bone of the vertebrae of the animal. Most beef is sold boneless and dorsal root ganglion tissue would normally be removed with the bone during the deboning process. That which is sold with the 'bone-in' is often in the form of rib or sirloin roasts and T-bone steaks. Risks are estimated on the basis that 5% of the DRG in these bone-in cuts may be eaten by the consumer.
5. With the Over Thirty Month Scheme (OTMS) in place the only DRG to pose a risk would be from animals which would have developed BSE before the age of 38 months. Using risk assessment techniques, and taking account of the 90% decline in the BSE epidemic since 1993, the numbers of such animals with BSE aged 30-38 months are shown to be very small. In 1997 it is estimated that there will be 6 animals in the latter category and 3 in 1998. Thus next year of the approximately 2.2 million cattle to be slaughtered for human food only 3 will be near enough to the end of the incubation period to raise the possibility of infectivity in their DRG. (Note in the worst year in the past the figure was many thousand times greater).
6. Using a series of pessimistic assumptions (published by the Environment Agency in other risk assessments earlier this year) concerning the various factors involved in the transmission of BSE to humans it is estimated that the risk from the DRG in food is now very small. On the basis of the risk assessment available to us it is estimated that there is a 95% chance of no cases and a 5% chance of one case of nvCJD arising as a result of this exposure in 1998.
7. We recommend that the new research findings from the pathogenesis experiment together with our assessment set out above be made public. If the Government decides that action is necessary to reduce this small risk further we recommend either:-
(a) eef with the bone in from cattle over 6 months old should be sold to the consumer; or
(b) cattle slaughtered between 24 and 30 months of age for human consumption should be deboned under official control by the Meat Hygiene Service in licensed plants.
8. We realise that implementing (a) will mean that the regulations will have to depend on all butchery outlets removing the bone since we are informed that there is not the capacity to debone all beef in premises inspected by the Meat Hygiene Service. We accept this and think it is workable because the customer can monitor the efficiency of the process as bone is readily identifiable.
9. If (a) or (b) is pursued there is then a question of what to do with the bones. We think it would be impractical to have a scheme which distinguished between different types of bone and therefore recommend that all bovine bones which are required to be removed under option (a) or (b) be disposed of through routes which do not result in the use of this material for human food.
10. As evidence is also emerging of infectivity in bone marrow (albeit so far in animals with clinical disease which cannot be used for food ) the measure we propose on the disposal of bones under either of the options would provide an additional margin of safety to deal with this finding.
11. It should be policy that imported beef should represent no greater risk than that from equivalent UK cattle under domestic control programs. If a decision is made that action is necessary and option (a) is chosen, then it would be difficult to ensure that meat with the bone in would be of non-UK origin. We therefore recommend that option (a) should apply to all beef to be consumed in the UK. If option (b) is chosen the risk from imported beef should be assessed against the risk from UK beef.
12. We recognise that our previous recommendations on sheep and goat SRMs were developed out of our understanding of BSE. As yet we have not found any evidence of BSE in UK sheep or goats but the surveillance is at a very early stage. Brain and spinal cord are to be banned and we believe that this is sufficient precaution at this stage. This will be reviewed whenever further experimental data are available.