The failure of the Meat Hygiene Service to test some casualty cattle for BSE before it entered the food chain is now provoking consumer groups to question the return of Over Thirty Month beef.
While human health risks associated with the failure have been described as minimal, the Food Standards Agency has announced a full investigation.
The FSA said it had initially reported five incidents of failure, but further reports from the MHS suggest there could have been around 200 cases.
Sir John Krebs, chairman of the FSA, said steps had now
been taken to ensure full testing would take place. “Testing of casualty cattle was introduced to track the level of BSE that may be present and, while the risk is minimal, I consider the apparent failures unacceptable.”
He said the risk was minimal because BSE had not been seen in UK cattle under 30 months since 1996. He also said specified risk material controls were applied to all cattle.
The National Farmers’ Union said the news had hit the industry at a crucial time, with the potential return of OTM beef into the food chain and the struggle to resume exports.
“This incident is not helpful in providing assurances of the effectiveness of the UK’s BSE controls, which are in fact among the best in the world,” a spokesman said.
However, a spokesman for the Consumers’ Association questioned the potential return of OTM beef: “We are very concerned so many cattle have been allowed into the food chain without testing, even if testing is for surveillance.
“These are the same bodies that would be responsible for testing OTM cattle if the rule is lifted. It is now clear removal of the rule would be premature.”