French food safety agency AFSSA on Wednesday proposed toughening a ban on lamb from flocks infected with scrapie because of concern that such meat could also be infected with mad cow disease and so threaten human health.
In a four-page opinion, AFSSA recommended banning from the food chain all sheep aged one year or older that come from flocks infected with scrapie.
The agency also maintained a controversial recommendation issued in February that all sheep intestines be banned from the food chain as a precaution against mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Both measures would go further than current French rules that require the removal of certain specified risk material -- most of the head and spinal cord - from sheep and goats that come from herds infected with scrapie.
Scrapie, found in sheep, is similar to BSE. But while scrapie is believed to pose no threat to human health, the human equivalent of mad cow disease, variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD), has claimed at least 100 lives.
Scientists have managed to infect sheep with BSE in laboratories, although to date there have been no reports of a naturally occurring case of the deadly cattle disease in sheep.
However, officials have said there is a theoretical risk that the presence in sheep of mad cow disease could be masked by scrapie.
Basing its recommendation on the possibility that sheep could become infected with the agent that causes BSE, AFSSA said flocks infected with scrapie probably had a genetic makeup that put them at greater risk of becoming infected with BSE.
The possibility that BSE could infect sheep has unsettled European farmers and politicians already wary about consumer attitudes to the risk of mad cow disease.
The British government in September published a BSE contingency plan that said the country might be forced to destroy its entire 40 million sheep flock if mad cow disease was found to be capable of jumping species naturally.
French sheep farmers' federation FNO said a study in place since 1996 showed that scrapie is detected at around 70 sheep farms in France each year.FNO bitterly criticised AFSSA's original call for a ban on sheep intestines, but an FNO spokesman said on Tuesday that the agency's latest opinions were not a surprise and that the group did not fear a drop in lamb consumption as a result.
The French farm ministry declined to comment immediately on AFSSA's recommendation, and the European Commission was tight-lipped about the opinion.
"The Commission is currently studying all scrapie-related matters and we will come up with something in the near future,"said a spokeswoman for EU food safety Commissioner David Byrne.
The EU has already banned from the food chain the skull, including the brain and eyes, tonsils and spinal cord from sheep aged over 12 months. The spleen is also banned from sheep of any age.
British officials and trade groups were circumspect over AFSSA's latest opinion.Britain's Meat and Livestock Commission maintained that there was no evidence of BSE in sheep, while the country's Food Standards Agency said its scientific experts had not reached the same conclusions as AFSSA's own scientists.