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Bovine TB health risk 'very low'

24 July 2006 - BBC News

The health risks from eating meat infected with bovine TB are "very low", experts have said in response to claims the disease is entering the food chain. The UK Food Standards Agency issued a statement after the Badger Trust said up to 3,000 infected cattle could have reached people's plates last year. A study by the trust said current tests failed to identify a "hidden reservoir" of bovine TB in Britain's cattle herds. But the agency said it was satisfied with current meat inspection practises.

Badger Trust spokesman Trevor Lawson said: "It is perverse that the government has spent the last decade killing badgers in the interest of protecting public health, whilst ignoring its own shocking evidence of the likelihood of TB in human food."

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said in a statement that as well as tests on live cattle, animal carcasses were also checked for signs of the disease after slaughter. "Those testing positive with widespread lesions are not allowed to enter the food chain," the statement said. "Where a carcass shows evidence of localised TB, the lesions are cut out and the rest of the carcass is passed as fit for human consumption." It also said there were further measures within the food chain to prevent contaminated meat going on sale, but it was also important for people to observe basic precautions when handling and preparing food. An FSA spokesman said there had not been a single documented case of someone developing human TB after eating infected meat.

Mr Lawson rejected any suggestion that the trust's report was scaremongering: "The government itself in suggesting that a badger cull might be required to control TB uses the argument that one of the justifications is to protect human health.

"It cannot have it both ways by saying it will kill badgers to protect human health, then say there is no risk [from contaminated meat]," he told BBC News. "If you look at what government vets are telling farmers when they get TB in their herds - the vets are telling them that it is from a non-bovine source, such as badgers for example. But what our report shows is in fact the test is not working and the repeated TB breakdowns are a result of that. The disease is never being properly removed and we wanted to make sure that farmers were fully aware of the limitations of the tests."

The trust said the current method, so-called skin tests, were inadequate and failed to identify the disease in up to one-third of infected animals. Instead, it called for the use of a blood test called "gamma interferon" because it was able to detect 95% of cases of bovine tuberculosis in cattle.

In March, compulsory pre-movement testing was introduced for cattle in England, using the skin testing method, in an effort to curb the spread of TB in herds.

Government scientists between 2002 and 2005 carried out a field trial of the gamma interferon blood test. While acknowledging its improved detection rate, they voiced concern over the number of healthy cattle that were identified as being infected.

The trust said that a number of other nations were using more advanced versions of the blood test that reduced the number of "false-positive" results.

Defra said on its website that it was proposing a wider roll out of the gamma interferon blood tests in 2006, but that it would not replace the current skin tests. Defra has said that it was "not ruling anything in or out", and was "continuing to consider the organisation and practicability of a potential badger cull".

The total number of cattle slaughtered in Britain in 2005 under bovine tuberculosis control measures was 30,063.

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