Despite the sheer numbers of infected cattle suggesting the contrary, a leading expert on BSE has calculated that British beef is considerably safer than its French equivalent when it comes to infected meat sold for consumption.

So far this year, 1,165 cases of BSE have been confirmed in Britain, extremely high when compared to only 135 reported cases in France. However, explains Dr Christl Donnelly in a report for the Nature journal, the crucial difference is that in Britain no animal over the age of 30 months enters the food chain, because older cattle are more likely to contract the disease and the infectious prion protein, and estimates need to be made concerning under-reporting cases of BSE.

Under-reporting of BSE is a controversial area and Donnelly's claims that it is highly significant in explaining the steady rise of BSE incidence from 1987-96 have prompted a flurry of counter-claims from farmers.

Based at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London, Donnelly analysed data from the French Ministry of Agriculture and combined this with information from the UK to conclude that official BSE reports in France are likely to have been underestimated. Her estimates reveal that up to around 7,300 French cattle have actually been infected with BSE since 1987, while only 1,200 cases were reported.

Add the arguably valid assumption of under-reporting to the fact that older cows are routinely consumed in France, and Donnelly believes that the official figure that revealed 49 infected cows made it into the food chain can be pushed up to nearer 100. 

Of these animals, at least 24, but probably nearer 52, were slaughtered and eaten in France last year while highly infectious and at the late stage of developing BSE. In Britain, meanwhile, Donnelly explains that because of all the controls already in place, the number of animals eaten at the same stage amounts to just 1.2.

"The relative potential risks posed by the consumption of British and French beef warrant re-examination," she added. This means that a French ban on British beef imports is no longer justifiable, but the reverse situation is similarly unfair because no animals over the age of 30 months can enter Britain anyway. Except, of course, in the case of beef products, where it is impossible to tell which animals the meat derived from.

Officials in France responded to the research yesterday (13 December) saying that even if the figures were correct, laws are in place to prevent the infected body parts, such as the brain and spine, from entering the food chain "It does not change anything about the safety of French beef meat, as we are only eating muscle of animals and eliminating risk materials," said Yves Salmon of the French Farmers' Union.

Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister, did however announce that all cattle over the age of 30 months would be tested for BSE next month, half a year earlier than the date set by the EU for the commencement of such tests. French authorities are also expected to question now the necessity of a complete ban on consumption of older cows, a move that proved costly and unpopular in Britain when it was implemented,

In a letter to Nature magazine, chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency, Sir John Krebs, commented that while Donnelly's research did seem to suggest that the risk of consuming meat from French cattle closer to developing BSE symptoms is higher than that in Britain, her conclusions relied on a number of unsubstantiated assumptions.

These include the assumption that the BSE epidemic in France followed the same pattern as that in Britain, and Krebs also added that the study may have been impacted by too keen a focus on carcass meat.

Donnelly supported her study and its findings saying that: "There has been a great deal of speculation about the relative risks in different BSE-affected countries. But when we do risk assessment it should be based on the evidence, and the evidence as analysed in this matter shows there is a lower risk in British beef eaten this year than there is in French beef"

To read about the Parisian spit roast hosted by local butchers to restore consumer confidence, click here.