John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), has issued a renewed warning that BSE infected meat may still be in the food chain. He is reacting, it seems, to a discussion paper recently published by the National Consumer Council (NCC), which has suggested that a more cautious approach to the BSE crisis during the 1980s could have saved lives.

Krebs explained to listeners of BBC Radio 4's Farming Today program that a loophole within existing BSE regulation means that animals may be killed on a farm or at an unlicensed abattoir for consumption by the farmer. This meat is exempt from stringent safety checks and while it is illegal to sell the meat, Krebs fears that it is regularly passed on cheaply to consumers in rural areas.

"We're concerned about both the extent to which this goes on and the possibility that meat or meat products from private kills might get into the wider food chain," Krebs said.

He explained that it is impossible to ensure that the high-risk brains and spinal tissue has been properly removed from private-sale meat, which may also derive from cattle aged over 30 months, which is otherwise deemed unfit for human consumption within the commercial meat sector.

Jill Newt, chairman of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons advisory group, has backed Krebs revelations. She commented: "I think consumers should be aware and that anyone offered cheap meat should get a second look at where that animal was killed and where that meat was cut up."

If the dangerous habit it is no surprise, then why has no one stopped it? The director of the British Meat Foundation, Peter Scott, has called for an end to private sales. "This is a problem for the FSA, and it's a dilemma which they, and before them the MAFF, have faced for a number of years. In this day and age, if there's any risk at all, then that loophole must be closed."

This point is especially pertinent in the light of the NCC's paper. It argues that if the government had taken a precautionary approach to BSE earlier, during the 1980s, it may have saved the lives of many who have died from the brain wasting vCJD, a human variant of BSE. The NCC warns that while the official death toll has currently reached 82, the long-term impact of the disease is virtually unquantifiable.

The BSE debate is due to intensify at the end of this month when the official Phillips report into the crisis is due to be made public, following its release to the government last week.