The findings of an independent inquiry into the failure of the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS), an executive agency of the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), to test for BSE an estimated 261 casualty cattle have been published.

The inquiry was initiated by the FSA in June, following an MHS audit that uncovered a number of failures to test casualty cattle aged 24-30 months.  Casualty cattle are animals subject to special emergency slaughter, because of an accident or other serious condition, or because they show signs of any disease, injury or abnormality at ante mortem inspection.

The independent inquiry concluded that, on the basis of existing advice from the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), the risk to human health from all casualty cattle entering the food chain was very low. This is because there have been no confirmed cases of BSE in cattle under 30 months in the UK since 1996, there have been no BSE positives detected in the more than 2,800 casualty cattle aged 24-30 months tested to date, and that Specified Risk Material (SRM) controls (which remove more than 99% of any infectivity that may be present) are applied.

A steering group, led by Patrick Wall, professor of food safety at University College Dublin and former chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, was set up to oversee the inquiry. Its report and recommendations will be considered by the FSA at its open meeting this Thursday, after which an action plan will be developed for further consideration by the FSA's Board at its meeting in December.

"We have concluded that there were a number of reasons for the testing failures and that all organisations involved - FSA, Defra, MHS and their contractors - contributed to one degree or another. It is our view that these failures occurred principally because the requirements and the objectives of testing were not clearly agreed nor communicated effectively and not properly monitored," said Professor Wall.

"I would also stress that during our investigations we did not uncover any problems that cannot be remedied without too much difficulty," he added.