June 16, 2006
June 16,2006 -- Britain's food watchdog has admitted it cannot rule out a risk to human health from the brain disease atypical scrapie.
"Atypical scrapie" in sheep, which is similar to BSE in cattle, is thought to have infected about 82,000 sheep in Britain, compared with an estimated 56,000 with classical scrapie.
The disease can be transmitted to mice in laboratory conditions and a 'theoretical' risk to humans cannot be excluded, researchers have said.
Meat-eaters in the United Kingdom (UK) - where New Zealand (NZ) sells 68,034 tones of sheepmeat annually, worth NZ$543 million - have been told that avoiding mutton, goat and some sausages is the only way to reduce the risks from a new animal brain disease.
NZ does not have scrapie in its sheep and exports only 11,592 ton of mutton, worth NZ$56.16 million. Britain sells 8,000 ton of mutton in its domestic market annually.
But NZ exporters have frequently expressed fears during Britain's problems with BSE and foot-and-mouth disease that a black mark against sheepmeat or beef can hurt perceptions of that meat even when it comes from a separate source.
The Times newspaper reported the advice from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) raised the most serious concern about the safety of meat since the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle.
"The trouble is that once the agency starts advising consumers to avoid products. . . they raise the suspicion that there is something to worry about," it said.
Classic scrapie is a brain-wasting disease related to BSE which has been in sheep outside NZ and Australia for more than 150 years, but it is not known to have hurt human health.
The FSA said it was updating 'guidance' to shoppers because it did not know whether the new form, atypical scrapie, could affect health.
It has not specifically told people to stop eating sheep or goat meat, or cheeses made from their milk, but has said they can reduce any risk by avoiding mutton.
Mutton accounts for a quarter of sheep meat sold in Britain and about 16 percent of the sheepmeat NZ sends there. It is commonly used in meat pies, pasties, curries and some ready-prepared meals.
UK shoppers will find it difficult to identify mutton products because there is no requirement to label it, except for pre-packed sausages, and there is no legal definition of what comprises mutton. Some NZ lamb sold in Britain is differentiated by a quality mark, a rosette.
The FSA has said it will ask the European Commission for urgent introduction of new rules to make manufacturers label products containing mutton. Because of the existence of atypical scrapie in sheep in continental Europe, this is expected to also have implications for NZ sheepmeat sales in other European countries. Reprinted in part from Stuff, New Zealand