Fears have been raised that avoiding the consumption of beef may not be enough to avoid the dangers of BSE. Many who decided to ignore government assurances that meat is safe and chose other options for the dinner plate are still potentially at risk from the omnipresent ingredient gelatine.

It is largely thought that CJD is caused by consumption of beef from BSE-infected cattle, but until now gelatine has largely escaped attention. Some 65% of the world’s gelatine is manufactured from ground cattle bones and hides, and with this in mind it feasibly carries the same risks as a slab of steak. Only a few manufacturers have confronted safety concerns, however.

The Gelatine Manufacturers of Europe trade association commented that since 1997, members have chosen not to utilise skulls, spleens or the spinal column in light of the connection between BSE and these high-risk parts. They have also avoided cattle parts from high-risk areas Britain and Portugal since 1996.

So far, not a single case of CJD has been blamed on the consumption of gelatine. In the process of its manufacture, cattle remains are subject to various sterilization procedures, but then BSE is known to be heat- and chemical-resistant. German microbiologist Roland Heynke admitted: “The process may result in a reduction of risk, but not to zero.”

With this in mind, manufacturers who argue that the process makes the product safe may be misled. Many admit however, that risks exist simply because so little is known about the transmission of BSE to humans.

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Further investigation into this issue is essential, because as an ingredient gelatine is almost unavoidable. Its elastic properties have made it popular in the manufacture of pills and capsules, and it is also common in foods such as wine, beer, yoghurt, milk shakes, margarine, ice-cream, vegetable juice and confectionary.

According to Jurgen Thomsen, chairman of the association, a €1.3m study is currently being sponsored by the gelatine industry, to determine whether risks are eliminated during the processes of manufacture. Until this is completed, however, it is only the food processors that have switched to pork-based gelatine who can afford to relax.