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Mad cow disease fear sparks proposed ban on sheep byproducts

sheep

July 23, 1996
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT)

From Correspondent Margaret Lowrie

LONDON (CNN) -- British farmers are still fighting the European Union's ban on the sale of British beef, but said Tuesday they welcome, as a precautionary measure, a possible EU ban on the sale and export of sheep offal, not just from Britain, but from all of Europe.

As Sir David Naish of the National Farmers Union explained, some scientific work has shown that sheep might be able to contract Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, by eating feed contaminated with infected cow remains.

"There may well be a case for excluding certain offals from sheep," he said, "and given that, it must be the right way for the commission to tell all their consumers that they're on top of the situation, and that this is the way it should be addressed," Naish said.

meat

The EU's agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, raised the issue of a ban after French laboratory tests showed BSE could be transmitted to sheep. The risks are low, the European Union agriculture commissioner said, but it is worthwhile to take precautionary measures, and hopefully keep the world from dropping lamb like a hot brick.

It's not clear what practical effect a ban will have, since sheep offal -- the brains, spinal cord and spleen of sheep -- is not used in Britain anyway. "It will have an effect on us," said one British butcher, "but at the moment I don't think it will, if they handle this properly, whereas the beef was very badly handled."

Mad cow disease outbreak

After years of denying that BSE could be contracted by humans who ate infected cow products, Britain acknowledged in March that such an infection was possible. Beef sales plummeted, and the sale of all British beef was prohibited on the grounds that more people and livestock could be contaminated. Even today, four months later, beef consumption in Europe remains 11 percent below pre-scare levels.

farm

Some farmers still reeling from the handling of the beef crisis say news of the proposed sheep offal ban may already be making an impact.

"We received this morning about four pounds a head lower than we would have received this time last week, or that we might have expected to have received if this headline hadn't blown up this morning in various newspapers," said British farmer Mike Limb. "So yes, there is an immediate effect."

Some critics say a ban simply isn't necessary. "It's dubious that infectivity is likely to be in sheep tissue in the U.K., because we've not been feeding them large amounts of infective material for a very long time," said microbiologist Stephen Dealler.

In any case, some might wonder why it took tests proving sheep could get BSE to force the issue of a ban on sheep offal. The prevailing scientific theory, after all, is that cattle developed BSE after eating feed infected with the remains of sheep sick with scrapie, a disease similar to BSE.

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