The British government has admitted making an error that has cost India dearly in terms of consumer perceptions of food safety. Officials now admit that they “mistakenly entered” figures relating to exports of meat and bone meal to Indonesia under India, prompting exaggerated concerns over the possibility that India’s national cattle herd harboured BSE.

Many experts are now of the opinion that the use of meat-and-bone meal (MBM) in cattle feed was responsible for the emergence of mad cow disease in Britain, and many also believe that the brain wasting disease is passed to humans who consume infected beef in the form of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). One hundred people in Europe have now died as a result of vCJD, 90 of which were from Britain.

The European Union (EU) has now banned the use of MBM in cattle feed, but cattle in countries that accepted imports of the commodity from Britain during the 1980s and 1990s are thought to be at risk from contracting BSE. The disease can take many years to incubate.

By erroneously recording India, and not Indonesia, as an export destination for the MBM between 1980 and 2000, British officials needlessly aroused consumer fears. The consumer panic was noted in a letter from India’s Commerce Ministry to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on 16 April: “Indian media reports are being picked up by importing countries and the consequences are very damaging for the Indian frozen buffalo meat exports.”

The risk of India contracting BSE is actually unlikely, according to the opinion of the EU’s scientific steering committee.

The error was first noted in a letter from the British Agriculture Ministry to the International Food Industry Federation in Cheltenham, England, on 4 December last year. It read: “Some figures relating to Indonesia had mistakenly been entered under India. I can now confirm that there have been no exports to India from 1980 to date of products coming under the H.M. Customs and Excise heading of Flours, meals and pellets of meat or meat offals.

“Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience that this error may have caused.”

To read this week’s feature on BSE legislation in the EU, click here.