The following is a transcript of

Farming Today

with Ashley Getting

As broadcast by: BBC Radio 4 on 3rd April 2000

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Mr. Getting

Good morning. On Friday's program we investigated the link between Johne's disease in cattle and Crohn's in human beings. Today, as the new consumer watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, is launched, we asked what the authorities are going to do. But first the facts. Johne's is an intestinal disease endemic in dairy herds in most developed countries. A wasting disease, it's caused by Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis or MAP. In the Netherlands it affects a quarter of dairy cows. In this country it's not notified, so we don't know its prevalence. Crohn's is an intestinal disease that affects up to 80,000 people in the UK. Around one person in a thousand is thought to be susceptible to MAP. Although science is split on the issue, Professor Michael Collins from the International Paratuberculosis Association says there's now strong new genetic fingerprinting evidence linking the diseases.

Dr. Collins

In my reading of the literature where fully removed intestinal samples have been tested using genetic technology, seven out of ten studies find a significant association between this bacteria known as Mycobacterium paratuberculosis and the patient having Crohn's disease.

Mr. Getting

Government advisors here say on the balance of science, they're still not convinced by the link between Johne's and Crohn's, and a new report from the European Union has found no evidence either way. The EU does want increased and urgent research activity. A definitive answer could take years. But as "Farming Today" has revealed, there's new evidence from Queens University in Belfast that MAP is surviving pasteurisation. So, why, say critics, don't we take precautionary action now and enforce a longer pasteurisation time on the whole dairy industry in place of the current voluntary code? David Balfour is from the National Dairy Council.

Mr. Balfour

I think once the full investigation has taken place of the results of the work undertaken by Queens University Belfast, it's up to MAFF to look at that and to recommend a change. However, I just must add that the pasteurisation at 15 seconds is the internationally accepted standard throughout the world. We took the precautionary move of changing to 25 seconds. No other country in the world has done so. But coming back to whether MAFF should make the change, that is their decision. As always, the industry would work closely with MAFF.

Mr. Getting

Even if all dairy companies had to pasteurise to 25 seconds, Professor Michael Collins thinks it might only be a partial solution.

Dr. Collins

This bacteria also causes a generalized infection in animals and, so, products made from those animals, particularly ground beef products, could contain this bacteria. There have been no studies to suggest that it does, but we know that the infection does get into the bloodstream of animals. Water contamination is just as plausible, and in addition to that, you would have to acknowledge direct contact. I'm a stronger advocate for on-farm measures to control this infection, as opposed to simply telling manufacturers to turn up their pasteurisers a little bit, giving us a false sense of security that we've limited exposure of humans.

Mr. Getting

Professor Hermon-Taylor is a MAP expert from St. George's Hospital in London who's convinced of a link between Johne's and Crohn's. He first took his theory to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1992. At that time the Ministry felt the evidence was insufficient. He says government must begin to address the heart of the problem urgently.

Professor Hermon-Taylor

One of the most important things of all is for people in science and in responsible ministries need to recognize what we're up against because we have to produce a vaccine to make animals more resistant to this bug. We need to start the process of producing a vaccine, and this we could do in an accelerated manner if we started next week.

Mr. Getting

Alan Kennedy who has Crohn's agrees with the need for urgency. He feels in the past when it comes to dealing with the disease, there's been a problem at the heart of government.

Alan Kennedy

There is the structure of government which tends to be structured so that problems like this are not dealt with head-on, and I think the BSE case showed that up quite well. We have in the MAFF an organization whose responsibility it is to promote the agriculture business in Britain and at the same time be a regulator for that same business, and that's an impossible task to fulfill.

Mr. Getting

Crohn's sufferer Alan Kennedy. Another chapter in post-BSE Britain unfolds later today when the Food Standards Agency, under the guidance of Sir John Crebbs, is launched. Crohn's could be one of the issues landing on Sir John's desk if Agriculture Minister Nick Brown has anything to do with it.

Mr. Brown

As the minister, I rely on being professionally advised, on being scientifically advised, and I take the scientific advice very seriously indeed. As you know, from the 1st of April, food safety functions, those that my department had, transfer across to the new Food Standards Agency, and all advice to the public on food safety questions, and this is one, will come from the agency and not from me as the Minister of Agriculture. I have not received a report on this particular matter, and I think it would be only right for Sir John Crebbs to deal with the question rather than me.

Mr. Getting

"Farming Today" asked Sir John Crebbs to come on the program. The agency declined the invitation. But Dr. Norman Simmons is an independent advisor who's worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in the past, who will now be advising the new agency.

Dr. Simmons

The problem is that we may find, in fact I already have a suspicion, that places that already use the prolonged period of high temperature exposure in pasteurisation are getting positive results. So, that's not the only answer. If there was a magic bullet, we would use it, but I think it will be much more complex than that, and I think we'll have to direct our precautionary procedures at more than one target.

Mr. Getting

So, what you're saying is that increased pasteurisation isn't actually killing of the bacteria?

Dr. Simmons

No, I'm not saying that. It may kill the bacteria. But I'm saying that there may be other problems which result in the organism present in the milk at the point of sale. There may be contamination, it may survive at any point between the point at which it's pasteurised and the point at which it's sold, and all these points will have to be looked at.

Mr. Getting

Bearing in mind the rate of research at the moment, how long is it going to be till we find out the answers to any of even the most basic of these questions?

Dr. Simmons

Well, I think we'll have more answers by the end of this year. They may not be the answers that we want, but I think we'll have some more answers. Certainly, this second study that MAFF commissioned at our request should be pretty complete by the end of this year, and that will show whether long time exposure is effective, and just how long you have to expose things for it to be effective, and whether we need anything else. As regards whether the organism causes Crohn's or not, I do suspect that's going to be hotly disputed for some time ahead, and I feel that a decision will eventually have to be taken, even though we don't know whether this organism is the cause of Crohn's disease or not. I don't think it's the only cause, but I think it's a factor.

Mr. Getting

Is this going to be an issue landing on the desk of the Food Standards Agency which obviously kicks off later today?

Dr. Simmons

Without any doubt the Agency is going to have to make a decision. And, of course, it goes even wider than that. There's not much point in us taking action in isolation in this country because, as you know, some milk is imported, and this is an international problem. We'll end up importing milk from a country which doesn't even operate the precautions which we've recommended and which are being taken in this country, if we're not careful. So, we have to carry people with us.

Mr. Getting

So, even really before the Food Standards Agency has had time to take in a sharp intake of breath, we're saying that it may not have the capacity to protect the British consumer?

Dr. Simmons

The agency, like everybody else, can only deal with the known facts and can only do what is possible. If you're asking for the agency to wave a magic wand and only produce food which is 100% safe, I think you're demanding too much. I'm not a spokesman for the agency. We've all been working to protect people before the Agency has been produced, and many of the staff on the agency will be well aware of the potential problems in this particular field. They'll know what the research is that's being done, they'll know the results so far. They may call for more research. I expect they will. But they won't have a magic wand or a magic bullet that they can fire.

Mr. Getting

Although in this case, in the case of Crohn's and Johne's, the Minister of Agriculture has told us that he hasn't actually seen any briefing notes on this disease at all from his department.

Dr. Simmons

Who told you that?

Mr. Getting

That's Nick Brown.

Dr. Simmons

Well, I don't brief Nick Brown. I'm sorry if he hasn't seen anything. But that's a matter for him and his department.

Mr. Getting

But unless that culture actually changes, then the Food Standards Agency isn't going to make any difference at all, is it?

Dr. Simmons

I think the point is this: I think the agency is what people called for to show that it was completely independent of industry, and the people who have been appointed to be on the Board are completely independent of industry, and they're going to make the decision now about how much money goes to what research. You won't be able to say that research is not being funded because of any financial pressure, because that decision will be made by the agency.

Mr. Getting

Dr. Norman Simmons. And that's all for today.