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UK beef bone ban to stay

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7181.420c (Published 13 February 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:420
  1. John Warden, parliamentary correspondent
  1. BMJ

    An intervention by the chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, last week stopped the UK government lifting its ban on beef on the bone.

    An assessed “negligible risk” from eating British beef on the bone had to be balanced against the continuing possibility of a “very large” epidemic of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Professor Donaldson reported.

    There have now been 35 deaths from new variant CJD, probably caused by eating meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

    Professor Donaldson states: “It is impossible to predict the number of cases which will eventually occur. At this time, the estimates compatible with the present number of confirmed cases range from under a hundred to several million.”

    He will ensure that the incidence of new variant CJD continues to be monitored and examined for any features that will give a clearer picture of the size of the epidemic in future.

    Meanwhile, Professor Donaldson is working on how to present the risk in terms that will allow greater public understanding of its level compared with other potential hazards. Terms such as “safe,” “very safe,” or “small risk” do not convey a clear understanding to the public of the risks of eating meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Nor do they give a clear enough framework for public health policymaking, he states.

    The official inquiry now in progress has uncovered tension between British health and farm ministers over assurances that beef was “safe” to eat during the past 10 years. Beef bone controls were imposed in December 1997 after the government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee (SEAC) reported a very small risk of human infection through the dorsal root ganglia. In a follow up report last November, SEAC said that the risk remained very small and may have been reduced by half since the previous year.

    Professor Donaldson, however, recommended that the beef bone ban should stay, since to lift it would allow a food hazard that had been eliminated to pose a renewed risk. He proposes a further review in six months, when the risk will be further reduced because of additional control measures.

    The minister of agriculture, Nick Brown, announced in the Commons that he has accepted Professor Donaldson's advice. To Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who wanted the choice to be left to consumers, he said that tissue from animals incubating bovine spongiform encephalopathy could be hidden in stocks, gravy, and other products with a beef bone base and ingested inadvertently.

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