The following is a transcript of

CountryFile

with John Craven OBE

As broadcast by: BBC Television on 2nd April 2000

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John Craven OBE

Today on CountryFile, three pints in every one hundred contain a dangerous bacteria, so, is milk safe to drink?

John Craven OBE

This weekend British farmers may be cheered by the fact that they are going to get more than £200 million in extra government aid. The emergency package is aimed at dairy, beef, pig and upland farmers. But the crisis in farming is far from over, and dairy farmers, who are among the worst hit, are now facing a new food scare. In a joint investigation with our sister program Farming Today on Radio 4, CountryFile can reveal that a dangerous bacteria called MAP is getting into the milk that we drink, despite serious attempts to stop it by farmers and the dairy industry. And the real problem, say some scientists, is that the bacteria MAP causes Crohn's disease, a chronic bowel condition, in people. This special reeport by Rupert Segar.

Carol Ann Courtney 

It's an embarassing disease, it's .. it's an anti-social disease, it's .. it's a terribly, terribly painful ..... life.

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

I see people sitting in front of me, em, with pus running out of their bottoms and tears running down their faces. And that won't do.

Alan Kennedy

It had a fairly severe impact on my ability to just carry out an ordinary, everyday sort of life.

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

What I can say now categorically is: MAP is present in humans, and it's present in humans with Crohn's disease.

Rupert Segar

Crohn's is clearly a distressing disease, and this is where some people say it comes from. Farm animals, particularly cows, carry a certain bacteria in their intestines, and there's a growing weight of scientific evidence to say that this bacteria causes Crohn's disease in people. The so-called MAP bacteria causes diarrhoea in cattle and inflammation and infection of the animal's digestive tract: the same sort of symptoms suffered by people with Crohn's disease. But in cattle the bug can live undetected, and the fact that it's passed on through milk could have devastating consequences for Britain's hard pressed dairy industry. Professor John Hermon-Taylor, a microbiologist and surgeon, was the first to discover MAP in milk.

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

There's a shopping list of things that need to be done. We've gotta make sure our milk is safe, we've gotta make sure our animals are clean. I mean I do realise that we need another problem of this kind like a hole in the head. But we have to deal with things as they are, not as we would wish them to be.

Rupert Segar

The fact that MAP is sometimes found in milk is taken seriously by the dairy industry. Two years ago dairies said they'd improve the pasteurisation process: milk would be heated to 72 ° C, not just for fifteen seconds (that's standard), but for a full twenty five, to kill off the MAP bacteria.

David Balfour

This is merely a theory from Professor Hermon-Taylor that MAP might cause Crohn's disease in humans. It is a theory. It is not accepted by many other medical experts. Having said that, the industry did take the precautionary move. However, it is not possible to insist that everybody does it, as pasteurisation is subject to United Kingdom and European Community law, and only by making that change could everybody be forced to make that move, which we've taken, but it is merely precautionary.

Rupert Segar

The question is "Has it worked?". Well, it's doubtful. There are still signs that much of our milk, whether it's doorstep pintas or cartons bought in supermarkets, are contaminated with MAP. Research paid for by the Ministry of Agriculture is currently being carried out at Queen's University Belfast. Scientists there have been looking to see if they can still find MAP bacteria in milk sold in shops. And they have. CountryFile understand the results will show that out of every hundred bottles, three are infected. But finding the bacteria in milk samples in the lab is one thing. Proving that it can be passed onto humans and causes Crohn's disease is another. Several independent studies of samples taken from patients failed to find any evidence of the bug. And until more research work is done, the jury is still out. That's the verdict of the National Association of Colitis and Crohn's disease, a charity that represents many of Britain's Crohn's sufferers.

Richard Driscoll

The research that's been done provides almost an even spread of researchers who haven't found evidence of the bug in the tissues of Crohn's disease and those that do. And you have to balance it against all the other possible causes that have equally strong advocates, for, for example, measles, diet, smoking or some other cause being the cause of Crohn's disease.

Rupert Segar

And successive governments policy on Crohn's and milk has been based on advice from independent scientists. Over the past seven years, the link with milk has been examined by Dr. Norman Simmons. From tomorrow he'll be doing the same job for the new Food Standards Agency.

Dr. Norman Simmons CBE

At the present time there is not enough evidence to make us do more than we've done which is gather more, get some more knowledge, to enable us to decide exactly what could be done that would be effective if this organism does cause illness.

Rupert Segar

But recent research in other countries, for instance here in Wisconsin, America's "Dairy State", have now shown through genetic fingerprinting that even the strains of the MAP bacteria found in cows and in humans are identical.

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

What I can say now categorically, from both our own work and work from the United States, and China, and Germany, and Australia, and so on, is that MAP is present in humans and it's present in humans with Crohn's disease, and it's probably causing about 90% of Crohn's disease.

Dr. Norman Simmons CBE

We don't know if it causes the disease, we don't know what to do to get rid of it. And we're working, we are working, we are working on the people who provide funds to researchers to tell them: Tell us exactly what we can do to minimise the risk to the consumer. And, eh, it is unsatisfactory, I think, that we don't know, but nevertheless life isn't always satisfactory. If we only knew we'd do something about it.

Rupert Segar

Little consolation for the countries 80,000 sufferers. Carol Ann Courtney, a well known Welsh novelist, has had the disease for 20 years.

Carol Ann Courtney 

I took some painkilling drugs three hours ago. Some drugs to stop incontinence I have just taken. It's, em, it is the pain, it is the sudden-ness. Two telephone calls last night were cancalled out because I just had to run. And, you know, just leave people because the pain just, it's just like a sudden knife wound, you know knife attack across, you know, and eh, you can't speak. It takes your breath away.

Rupert Segar

Alan Kennedy got Crohn's when he was just 12 years old. Tragically, the majority of new cases involve people under the age of 30.

Alan Kennedy

It can be very socially distressing for people, particularly in the early stages, who are suffering from a lot of diarrhoea or a lot of constipation. Some patients can find that they are going to the bathroom between 15 and 20 times a day, which becomes very physically painful, and very socially distressing, because it drags them away from their work, away from their normal lives.

Rupert Segar

If MAP bacteria are in milk, and there's a risk it causes Crohn's, shouldn't everyone stop drinking milk?

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

No, the first thing is: Don't panic. In the first half of last century everybody drank the tuberculosis organism, including me, and mercifully only a very small proportion of the exposed people became ill. And the same applies to MAP. You need some inherited or acquired susceptibility to come down with the disease.

Dr. Norman Simmons CBE

Suppose people were to stop drinking milk. That would be quite damaging, it, they might have, there might be very serious effects from that. I'm not talking about the producers. The consumers would, there would be a downside if they stopped drinking milk. It's a very important source of protein. It's a very nutritious substance. It does a lot of good.

Rupert Segar

But MAP is not just found in milk. It may also be in the water we drink. In Cardiff there was concern over a cluster of 15 Crohn's victims. They all lived near the River Taffe. The water was contaminated with animal excrement. But no-one drinks water from the Taffe. Scientists were puzzled. How were the people exposed to the bug?

Dr. Roger Pickup

Well, our hypothesis is that you're getting water droplets, and they're being blown into the population, and the population are breathing those water droplets in.

Rupert Segar

So what happens if you drink the stuff? Most rivers are thought to be contaminated. Some are used for drinking water. The water companies say that filtration and chlorination will remove the bacteria, but Professor Hermon-Taylor and others are not so sure.

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

Organisms of the same class, called Mycobacterium avium, are known to be able to survive chlorination and are known to be able to survive and live in the environment.

Dr. Roger Pickup

We're absolutely ignorant about it's behaviour once it gets into the water system. The tests haven't been done, and I think it's about time that there was a research effort in this direction.

Rupert Segar

Whether MAP is in water, or in milk, it poses a threat, albeit unquantified, to human health. Both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health have known about these fears since 1992. Yet relatively little research into the problem has been carried out.

Professor John Hermon-Taylor

With BSE, we took a major effective action to head off a problem, which in population terms, hadn't even happened, because of the potential seriousness for the future. And that was painful, but it was the right thing to do. With MAP, we have not taken any effective action about a problem that's all around us right now.

Dr. Norman Simmons CBE

We're trying to find some answers. We still don't know what to do, and the reason it's been so difficult is that scientifically, the technical problems are very considerable, and very few people have been able to address the problems. Nevertheless, they've been asked to do so, and I hope that by the end of this year we'll have some much firmer evidence. I still think that we won't know whether or not it causes the disease or not, but we may do, we may do, we don't know.

Rupert Segar

In the meantime thousands more people will have developed Crohn's disease, and won't know if drinking milk is to blame.

Carol Ann Courtney 

I would really like it explained to me what it is that's living in here that's causing all this.

Rupert Segar

And why they can't get rid of it.

Carol Ann Courtney 

And please, can you get rid of it?