The British government has admitted that if BSE was discovered in the national flock, up to 40 million sheep could face slaughter in a bid to control the disease.

Contingency plans in case the disease is discovered have been released because the BSE inquiry report of October 2000 recommended that such planning was a “vital part” of government activity.

So far the brain wasting disease, believed to be linked to the fatal human illness vCJD, has not been detected in any sheep and there is indeed as yet no evidence that sheep can contract it. A surveillance programme is currently underway however investigating whether the nation’s 40 million sheep investigating whether BSE can be contracted by the animals in the same way as another similar brain disease scrapie.

There are thousands of cases of scrapie in sheep every year, but the disease is not harmful to humans. Nevertheless, the government is also following up another recommendation from the BSE inquiry and working to eliminating scrapie from the national herd sheep. About 25% of the sheep in Britain are naturally immune to the disease, and genetic scientists are hoping that by encouraging farmers to selectively breed using rams immune to scrapie, the disease can be wiped out.

Agriculture Minister Elliott Morley explained at a news conference: “Sheep have been given BSE by feeding them infected BSE brain tissue. So if it can be done in laboratory conditions, therefore we have to take the precautionary principle and look for the possibility that it is in the national flock.”

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The government also published its response to the BSE inquiry yesterday and Morley argued that the culture of secrecy and protection of the food industry that was criticised last October has disappeared.

Farmers are still reporting an average of 20 new cases of BSE every week, dashing hopes that the disease will be eliminated from the herd by the end of this year. At the height of the epidemic in 1993, around 1,000 cases were being reported every week.