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Search for BSE type disease turns to fish farms

James Meikle

The Guardian 15th March 2002

Scientists want farmed fish checked for BSE-like diseases - a move that could provoke strong opposition within the industry and heighten concerns that the battle against the threat of killer diseases from food may be going too far.

Advisers on the food standards agency believe tests should be devised in an effort to close further possible avenues for infecting humans with incurable conditions through their food.

The scientists who want to avoid any charge of complacency following the disastrous failures to take seriously the threat from cattle before 1996, now wish to eliminate any possible future threat. Work on fish is among the priority areas they say should be considered by the agency's research funding committee this year.

There is no evidence to date that fish do suffer anything like BSE, the cattle killer blamed also for the poisoning through food of 109 Britons and six others. Seven other Britons still alive are suspected of having the human form of BSE, variant CJD.

The agency stressed last night that discussions were at an early stage and the research might not be approved. A spokeswoman said, however, that there had been "virtually nothing" done in the area. "There is no suggestion there is anything to be found. The suggestion came up that maybe we ought to be looking at it to eliminate it."

The agency is already widening monitoring of farmed animals to include deer, which in the US and Canada suffer from a BSE-like condition known as chronic wasting disease. Fish, like other vertebrates, have prion proteins, which in an abnormal form have been associated with BSE and variant CJD.

The use of fish meal in feed for cattle, sheep and deer has already been banned within the EU as a precaution against cross-contamination on farms or in factories with infected animal protein, a move that has sparked fierce protests among feed manufacturers. A ban on any mammalian meat and bone meal from farm animals being fed to fish has been in place in Britain since 1996, cutting a theoretical route of BSE infection on fish farms.

Britain has a growing farmed fish industry, most notably in the salmon farms of Scotland, which now produce about 150,000 tonnes of fish a year and provide a large slice of Scottish food exports. Scottish Quality Salmon, the body representing companies responsible for about two-thirds of the country's production, said last night: "We are very surprised. There is absolutely nothing that would lead us to believe this would be an issue."

A spokeswoman said: "We have not been approached. There may be a plan to look at it from a point of view of ticking off an issue but it seems very strange. We are reasonably sure if there was anything to find, something would have been highlighted for us long before now, and it has not."

Discussion over BSE and fish is bound to highlight concern in some quarters that precautionary measures are in danger of being taken too far. Farmers are furious at the continuing effect of controls on the beef industry and fear that constant questions over BSE and sheep will further undermine consumer confidence.

More failures to carry out anti-BSE controls were revealed yesterday when the food standards agency announced that meat from 20 cows exempted from the ban on animals over 30 months old entering the food chain had not been tested for the disease in 2001, in breach of EU rules.