Select Committee on Agriculture Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (R 8)


Size of MAFF's research programme

  1. MAFF's expenditure on TSE research has increased from a zero base in 1986-87 to an estimated spend of £17.3 million in 2001-02. Annual expenditure figures during this period are shown in Table 1.

Table 1

1986-87 1987-881988-89 1989-901990-91 1991-921992-93 1993-94
0200 9001,000 2,3004,200 5,7006,200

1994-951995-96 1996-971997-98 1998-991999-2000 2000-012001-02 TOTAL
5,8005,6006,800 10,10012,651 15,02613,450 17,348107,275

  2. This expenditure represents 54 per cent of the total government expenditure on TSE research during the same period. The remaining 46 per cent was provided by BBSRC, MRC and DH and, since its establishment, FSA. Responsibility for 11 TSE projects and £2.5 million of MAFF's research funding was transferred to FSA in April 2000.

Co-ordination of the Research Effort

  3. Co-ordination with other funders' programmes is achieved through two committees, the High Level Committee on Research into TSEs and the TSE R & D Joint Funders' Co-ordination Group. The terms of reference and current membership of these committees are shown in Annex 1.

  4. The High Level Committee was established in 1997 with the role of overseeing the TSE research programme and ensuring that progress is as rapid and as effective as possible. The role of this committee is being reviewed as part of the follow-up to the Phillips Inquiry.

  5. Also in 1997, the remit of the Joint Funders' Group was extended to achieve co-ordination between research into animal and human TSEs. The Joint Funders maintain a database of all the TSE research in the UK. This can be found on the MRC's website and is accessible by the general public. They also arrange workshops so that the funding organisations can monitor the progress of the research and discuss the implications of emerging results. Regular reviews of this kind allow new areas of work and gaps in the programme to be identified.

  6.  These co-ordination mechanisms represent a considerable advance on the position that pertained in the period covered by the Phillips Inquiry. One of the conclusions in the Inquiry Report was that "where a problem in animal and human health arises that leads to demands for research on the scale and diversity required by BSE it is desirable that Government Departments and Agencies co-ordinate their efforts" (Volume 1, paragraph 1289).

  7.  In the case of TSE research these two committees have provided effective co-ordination. However, the conclusion has implications for government research in general and how this might be addressed is being considered currently by the Office of Science and Technology.

Capital Investment

  8.  Research on TSEs requires specialised laboratory facilities designed to provide a high level of disease containment. In the case of animal TSEs large animal housing is also required. Historically the availability of such facilities was as much of a limiting factor as the availability of research funding.

  9.  Since 1997 MAFF has invested £54.6 million in capital expenditure at the Veterinary Laboratory Agency on new facilities for TSE research. This has resulted in the establishment of the biggest large animal facility ever in the history of veterinary research. The procurement of these facilities has taken time, not only because of the time needed to build facilities on this scale, but also because of the requirements of the Animal Scientific Procedures Order of 1986 and the evolving and more demanding requirements from Health and Safety guidance and legislation. This was supplemented in 2000 by an additional capital sum of £13.9 million to expand the facilities available for work on TSEs in sheep. This sum was provided from the Treasury's capital modernisation fund and is providing new facilities for both VLA and the Institute for Animal Health.

Focus of MAFF's TSE Research Programme

  10.  The focus of MAFF's research programme has gradually changed as new scientific findings have emerged and as the BSE epidemic has responded to the control measures put in place to prevent its dissemination by meat and bone meal. Greater emphasis has now been placed on TSEs in sheep and the knowledge that is needed to avoid the reoccurrence of a BSE-like problem. This change in emphasis is illustrated in table 2 which shows how the percentage spend on sheep has increased over time.

Table 2

Year1992-93 1993-941994-95 1995-961996-97
Sheep TSE Research (£)1,038,649 1,892,4651,544,7981,754,925 2,422,024
Total TSE Research (£)5,700,000 6,200,0005,800,0005,600,000 6,800,000
% sheep/total18.2230.52 26.6331.3435.62

Year1997-98 1998-991999-2000 2000-01*
Sheep TSE Research (£)3,764,982 5,087,3777,205,2278,304,721
Total TSE Research (£)10,100,000 12,651,00015,026,523 13,450,000
% sheep/total37.2840.21 47.9561.75

* 2000-01 not final figures. Baseline fell due to transfer of projects totalling £2.5 million to the FSA.

  Note 1:   Sheep projects include research into BSE in sheep.

  Note 2:   Some projects cover both sheep and other TSE work or are relevant to both (eg diagnostics). These figures should be taken only as a guide to the relative spends.

  11. Research in an area such as this does take time however, and many of the studies commissioned some years ago are still ongoing and are only now coming to fruition. This is inevitable because of the protracted incubation period, which, in the case of BSE under natural conditions, is on average five years.

  12. MAFF's current TSE programme can be divided broadly into four areas: transmission, epidemiology, pathogenesis and diagnostics. There is not perfect demarcation between these areas as some projects could be said to fit into more than one category. Nevertheless, it does provide a useful breakdown for the purposes of describing the programme.


  13.  Although there is general agreement that ruminant derived meat and bone meal was the means by which BSE was spread in the cattle population it remains important to establish whether there are alternative routes of transmission. Gaining a better understanding of how this and other TSEs are transmitted will assist with control and eradication policies and in preventing another TSE causing a problem of the magnitude of BSE.

  14.  The Phillips Inquiry report notes the value of further work on transmission. It states (Volume 2, paragraph 3.161) that "Future studies of risk factors for vCJD, and further investigation of TSE transmission in general, are likely to be important in furthering our understanding of what determined whether or not an individual animal contracted BSE following exposure to the agent".

  15.  In the MAFF programme transmission studies have focused on providing information in the following areas.

Whether BSE can be transmitted to other food species

  16.  Studies with pigs and domestic fowl have been undertaken in which these species have been challenged with BSE by the oral route and by direct injection into the brain. These studies are largely complete and responsibility for them transferred to FSA in April 2000. In their recent review of BSE controls, the FSA recommended that more work should be done in this area. SEAC has made a similar recommendation. MAFF will be discussing how this might be taken forward with FSA.

Lateral and maternal transmission

  17.  In cattle the work on lateral and maternal transmission is largely historic. The possibility of lateral transmission was examined by analysis of the within herd incidence data collected during the course of the BSE epidemic. This provides no evidence for lateral transmission.

  18.  Maternal transmission was looked at in a cohort study which compared the development of BSE in groups of 300 calves from affected and non-affected dams. This was completed in 1997. Analysis of the results indicated that the risk of maternal transmission could be around 10 per cent for calves born to dams that were clinically affected, or were within the last six months of clinical onset.

  19.  The role of the placenta and foetal membranes has also been investigated. However, attempts to transmit BSE from these tissues taken from parturient BSE cases to calves by the oronasal route have failed. Infectivity has not been detected in embryos, udder or milk either. The mechanism for maternal transmission therefore remains unclear.

  20.  The current programme is concentrating on transmission of TSEs in sheep. The picture here is more complex due to differences in the susceptibility to scrapie of different PrP genotypes in sheep. Two studies are in progress and three new proposals aimed at investigating natural routes of transmission are under consideration for funding.

  21.  The first of the experiments in progress is looking at the vertical transmission of BSE in sheep of three different PrP genotypes. The second is investigating maternal transmission using embryos of a genotype known to be susceptible to a particular strain of scrapie. These are transferred to ewes, some of which are resistant to scrapie. Lambs are either born naturally or are delivered by caesarean and hand reared.

Embryos and semen

  22.  Studies have been undertaken in both cattle and sheep. In cattle a project to determine whether BSE can be transmitted by embryo transfer is coming to a close. There has been no evidence that embryos collected from BSE-affected cows whether sired by healthy or BSE-infected bulls, transmit disease.

  23.  Semen used for AI in cattle has not been found to be a risk factor in the occurrence of BSE.

  24.  The work with sheep is ongoing. Fifty embryos from donor ewes with naturally acquired scrapie infection have been transferred into scrapie-free Suffolk ewes imported from New Zealand. The resultant lambs were born in 2000 and remain scrapie free to date.

Effective exposure

  25.  Studies investigating what constitutes effective oral exposure in cattle have shown that as little as one gram of BSE-affected material will transmit disease. A second study is now underway with oral dose levels between one gram and one milligram of BSE-affected brain.

Tissue sources of infection

  26.  Studies to determine which tissues carry infectivity have been extremely important in identifying high risk materials that should be kept out of the food chain. Most bioassays for tissue infectivity have been conducted in panels of mice. As noted by Phillips, comparative studies have shown that bioassay in cattle is approximately 500-fold more sensitive than in mice. At present work is underway to see whether cattle pick up lower levels of infection than mice. A wide range of tissues collected from a former study which has assessed their infectivity in mice have been inoculated into cattle. So far there have been no transmissions to cattle from tissues which did not also transmit to mice.

  27.  A relatively new study started in 2000 is looking at the extent to which there is underestimation of the infectivity of sheep BSE tissues when tested in mice.

  28.  The species barrier is one of the reasons why the mouse bioassay is less sensitive than bioassay in cattle. However, it is very expensive to use calves for bioassay and the current programme includes projects in which transgenic mice have been developed. In transgenic mice the mouse prion gene is replaced by PrP gene alleles from another species. Our programme includes work on sheep and bovine transgenics, but human transgenic mice are also being used in the study of CJD.

  29.  Studies on abnormal prion protein (PrPsc) distribution and tissue infectivity in sheep are also underway. These include studies on sheep of different PrP genotypes infected with natural scrapie and studies of PrPsc distribution and infectivity in sheep experimentally infected with BSE.

  30.  This work is of importance in providing information on whether tissues from sheep of genotypes that are thought to be resistant to scrapie and BSE carry infectivity. The National Scrapie Plan, which aims to reduce and eventually eradicate scrapie by selective breeding for resistance, would be compromised if such animals could carry infectivity and act as a source of infection for other sheep without themselves succumbing to clinical disease.

Genetic predisposition

  31.  In cattle polymorphisms in the bovine prion gene have not yet been linked to disease risk in BSE. One study, designed primarily to identify diagnostic markers for TSE infection in blood may, however, shed some light on whether other genetic factors are involved.

  32.  As has been mentioned earlier, there is genetic variability in the susceptibility of sheep to scrapie and BSE. Variations in the amino acids at particular points on the prion gene are responsible. Although this is known, more information on the genetic influence on resistance and the course of disease development in sheep of different genotypes is required. This will be helpful in implementing the National Scrapie Plan and will be essential for any contingency plan that may need to be put in place if BSE were to be found in sheep. Ongoing work is providing this information in a study in which groups of three breeds of scrapie free, New Zealand sheep and one breed from a British scrapie-free flock of different genotypes have been challenged with a characterised strain of scrapie or with cattle BSE.

Environmental exposure

  33.  A project which has begun only very recently is investigating if and to what extent infectivity can persist in the soil in experimental systems. A study of natural transmission of scrapie, which will also study whether infection can result from exposure to scrapie contaminated pasture is due to begin shortly.

  34.  There are two studies investigating the possible significance of forage mites in the transmission of BSE and scrapie. One aims to establish if there is a connection between TSEs in sheep and cattle and their exposure to mites. The study has found no evidence for consistent differences in mite numbers between high and low incidence TSE farms. The other study is evaluating the potential for replication of PrPSC and PrPBSE purified from sheep and cattle brains respectively. The mites are also being tested for infectivity by mice bioassay. This study was prompted by scientific evidence that mites may play a role in transmission of scrapie in Iceland.


  35.  Epidemiology studies involve the collection of data about a disease, its incidence and spread and the factors that may be involved in the spread of infection. Quantifying the effect of these factors is important in determining whether a disease is sustainable by the routes of infection identified and whether other routes are likely to be involved. Knowledge of the risk factors for a disease can be used to target surveillance more accurately.

BSE epidemiological studies

  36.  From the start of the BSE epidemic case data have been collected which have been subjected to extensive analysis by epidemiologists at VLA and at Oxford. These studies were crucial in identifying meat and bone meal as the most likely vector of infection and in allowing predictions of the size of the epidemic and its duration to be made. Data analysis has also allowed the effectiveness of the control measures to be monitored.

  37.  This work is continuing and further analysis is being undertaken in a collaborative project between epidemiologists at VLA and Professor Morris at Massey University, in New Zealand. These studies are thought to be the first in which the time course of an entire animal disease epidemic has been described at national level.

Origin of the epidemic

  38.  Analysis of the epidemiological data to establish whether BSE was likely to have started from a single source or multiple sources has led to various theories on the origin of BSE. This was considered extensively by the Phillips Inquiry, which concluded that the origin of BSE was not scrapie, but probably originated from a novel source early in the 1970s as a result of a gene mutation in cattle, or possibly in sheep.

  39.  This conclusion is not accepted by some scientists working in the field. The origin of the disease is of considerable public interest and has implications for future surveillance and control policies. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Health have therefore commissioned a review of the current scientific understanding of the origin of BSE. The review is being led by Professor Gabriel Horn from the University of Cambridge.

  40.  Information from two current studies in which cattle have been challenged with scrapie will also contribute to our understanding of the origin of BSE. One involves sources of scrapie isolate obtained both before and during the BSE epidemic. The other is looking at the effects of scrapie inoculum of known titre before and after rendering.

  41.  Epidemiological research of BSE is still concerned with investigating the origin of BSE through the extensive analyses which are possible and through the use of simulation modelling.


  42.  Epidemiological studies with sheep aim to identify risk factors that are important in the introduction and maintenance of scrapie infection and disease in sheep flocks. The studies are being undertaken using commercial flocks which have been recruited for the purpose. Data from these studies will be used to construct a mathematical model that describes the dynamics of scrapie between flocks and how this is affected by genotype. This will allow the most likely routes of transmission to be identified. The model will also provide an estimate of the current prevalence of scrapie and the impact of different control policies.

Strain typing

  43.  Differences in strain between TSE agents causing disease are important epidemiologically in relation to the origin of disease. Different strains may affect host species differently and some may be more virulent than others, producing disease more readily or more rapidly. Strain differences may also be important diagnostically. Certainly in the case of BSE and scrapie a rapid test that could differentiate between BSE and strains of scrapie that have similar characteristics would be extremely valuable.

  44.  Part of MAFF's programme has been aimed at characterising different strains of TSEs. To date, the characteristics of the BSE agent have been very robust and only a single strain has been identified. Throughout the BSE epidemic the VLA has undertaken neuropathological monitoring of field cases to look for changes in the biology of the causative agent and has failed to reveal any. Most of the strain typing studies have been done with British isolates however and it is possible that BSE in other countries may show different characteristics. A new project which is due to begin shortly will determine whether Swiss BSE is different from the British one, although isolates examined early in the Swiss epidemic behaved identically to those tested in Britain.

  45.  The position for scrapie is in marked contrast to that for BSE. Here multiple strains of scrapie have been identified. Strain typing, both to characterise the strains of scrapie encountered in natural infection and to look for BSE in sheep in the national UK flock is a feature of many of the sheep projects supported, including the epidemiology projects referred to earlier.

Sheep surveillance

  46.  In its report published in April 1999 the SEAC sub-group on research and surveillance for TSEs in sheep recommended that more consideration should be given to ways of improving the ascertainment of TSEs in sheep and that the possibility of undertaking some targeted surveillance of farms that might be at higher risk from BSE should be investigated. A SEAC sub-group on surveillance subsequently considered the approaches that might be used to take forward this recommendation.

  47.  In their report to the main committee the sub-group identified the two most important objectives of the surveillance as:

    —  to look for BSE in the national sheep flock;

    —  to provide a baseline assessment for the incidence of scrapie so that change in incidence could be monitored.

  48.  They recommend that the approaches that should be used to meet these aims were:

    —  to define and agree the criteria that would be used to determine what was and was not BSE;

    —  to strain type all notified cases of scrapie, provided the brains were in suitable condition;

    —  to undertake a pilot study to identify the costs and the practical constraints of undertaking a longitudinal study of around 1,000 farms to establish a baseline for the incidence of scrapie;

    —  to repeat the anonymous postal survey of farmers undertaken previously to establish how reproducible the results were; and

    —  to investigate which tissues carry infectivity and are therefore the best to sample and the tests that might be used to monitor changes in the prevalence of scrapie in sheep going into slaughterhouses.

  49.  The main committee endorsed these recommendations and a programme of work has now begun to take them forward.

  50.  To date BSE has not been found to have occurred naturally in sheep. However, the Government is adopting a precautionary approach and has for some time been operating a risk reduction strategy in line with advice from SEAC and the Food Standards Agency. This includes the research and surveillance programme described here, the removal of specified risk material from the food chain and the National Scrapie Plan to eliminate scrapie from the national sheep flock.

  51.  The Government also has in hand preparation of a contingency plan setting out actions that might be taken in different scenarios if in the future BSE is found to be present in sheep.

Inactivation of the TSE agent

  52.  Most rendering processes fail to result in significant inactivation of TSE infectivity, a finding noted in the Phillips Inquiry report. BSE is particularly resistant to inactivation. MAFF is funding a number of projects to see whether inactivation can be achieved using new technology.

  53.  One of these is examining a novel system of biorefinement involving high pressure steam which processes tissue at 1900C. The second is testing a system which combines the processes of autoclaving and exposure to alkali. If either of these systems can be shown to inactivate TSEs fully it has potential for use in processing large animal carcass waste and the UK meat and bone meal currently in store.

  54.  The third project involves the use of highly thermostable proteolytic enzymes. This would be particularly useful for veterinary and medical applications to inactivate TSEs on equipment which many otherwise have to be destroyed.

  55.  In addition to the work on novel processes there is a study exploring how the older process of tallow separation and solvent extraction affect PrPSC. Experimental evidence indicates a reduction in TSE infectivity in meat and bone meal prepared by processes which involve traditional tallow production as a by-product. It is not known whether this is because the process inactivates the infectivity in the meat and bone meal or partitions it into the tallow and related extracts. This study should fill in a number of gaps in our understanding of the levels of risk occurring in the early 1980s.


  56.  This is the study of the disease process and the pattern of development within the cells and organs of the body. MAFF-funded work in this area has been extremely important in the past in determining which tissues in the body of BSE infected cattle carry infectivity. This has formed the basis of the legislation which prohibits the inclusion of materials which carry a high risk of infectivity in the human food chain. The current programme includes the following additional areas.

BSE in sheep

  57.  Two complementary projects involving sheep of different breeds and genotypes are exploring the pattern of tissue infectivity that develops when sheep are challenged orally with BSE infected cattle brain.

  58.  The question of whether BSE changes in appearance when passed from one sheep to another is also being examined. If it does, and if it becomes more like scrapie in appearance, it will be harder to detect in sheep.

Scrapie in sheep

  59.  Several studies are exploring the pathogenesis of natural scrapie, each focusing on different aspects. The effect of genotype on PrP distribution and vacuolation is being examined with emphasis on the identification of potential carrier states and sub-clinically infected sheep in flocks heavily infected with scrapie.

  60.  Because PrPSC accumulates in lymphoid tissue it has been suggested that the detection of PrPSC in tonsils could provide a useful means of monitoring the incidence of scrapie in flocks. However, more needs to be known about the time after infection at which PrPSC starts to accumulate in the tonsils and whether this is consistent for different breeds and genotypes. Early evidence suggests that it is not. A study aimed at exploring this issue is underway.

Studies at the cellular level

  61.  An understanding of the early cellular events in disease development would be beneficial in a number of respects. It may help to shed light on why only a proportion of exposed cattle develop BSE and may provide information valuable in prevention and control of disease.

  62.  Several studies at the cellular level are underway. One is exploring the cell types that sustain PrP accumulation in the intestinal mucosa, the lymphoreticular system and the peripheral nervous system in BSE in mice and cattle. A second is looking at whether lysosomes are involved in the first identifiable changes that occur in neuronal cell bodies during scrapie infection.

  63.  Cell lines have also been developed which allow the effects of disease to be investigated in-vitro rather than using assays in live animals. If these can show responses that are both specific to the disease and reproducible in a shorter time frame than assays in live animals they will be extremely valuable. In addition to their contribution to our understanding of the pathogenesis of the disease they provide scope for the development of ante-mortem tests, monitoring inactivation, testing food for adulteration and testing drugs for disease control. A study is underway which is looking at the effect of the BSE agent on bovine cell lines.

The species barrier

  64.  The relative importance of three different factors known to contribute to the effect of the species barrier are being explored. Differences in pathogenesis between first and subsequent passages in a new host is one of these.


  65.  One of the high priority areas for research is the development of a sensitive diagnostic test for TSE infection. The ideal test would be one that could be performed on the live animal. Such a test could be used to prevent infected animals entering the food chain and would provide invaluable support to the programme to eradicate scrapie. The test would need to be easy to use for large scale testing and cheap enough to be viable.

  66.  Diagnostics have been the subject of research since the beginning of the epidemic, but a test that can be used routinely in the live animal is still not available. A large international effort has been put into the development of a diagnostic test for TSEs under funding from EU Member States and some commercial development. The main problem is finding a marker that can be detected in the early stages of disease before clinical signs are evident. The tests also need to be very sensitive and some which show promise in the laboratory have neither the simplicity nor the reproducibility required for a high throughput national testing programme.

  67.  There has been greater success in developing post-mortem tests for BSE. Currently three have been approved by the EU for use in Member States' national testing programmes. However, these have been validated only on central nervous system tissue from cattle in the late stages of disease development. There is no validated test for use on sheep to detect BSE or scrapie in peripheral tissues. There is still an urgent need for further work in this area.

  68.  At present the Joint Funders are trying to speed up the progress on diagnostic test development by eliciting the interest of biotechnology companies. A meeting has been arranged for February which will bring together academics and small biotechnology companies with a view to stimulating collaborative projects. The Funders will be running a joint call for new research proposals at the same time, funding for which will be available in 2001. MAFF's current programme includes work in the following areas.

Production of tissues for test development

  69.  The development and validation of tests requires tissues from animals at known stages of disease development. Tissues and body fluids from many of MAFF's projects are banked for future use. However, in addition there are some projects with the specific aim of producing tissues for this purpose. Both cattle and sheep tissues are being produced.

  70.  The Veterinary Laboratory Agency maintains the tissue archive and wherever possible provides tissues to meet the needs of other research workers both in the UK and overseas.

Evaluation of tests developed elsewhere

  71.  A long term project at the VLA provides funding for the further development and evaluation of tests originally developed elsewhere. This part of the programme includes the evaluation of a blood test claimed to be able to detect scrapie infection in sheep as early as three months after initial infection. The test uses immuno-capillary electrophoresis and has become known as the ICE test. Early results looked promising, however technical problems with the equipment have hindered progress.

Search for new markers

  72.  The marker of infectivity used in most of the tests that have been developed is the abnormal form of the prion protein. Most tests for BSE are based on the interaction of specific antibodies with PrPSC. Secondary substances produced as the result of infection have also been identified in serum or urine. Research to test their usefulness as a diagnostic marker is part of MAFF's programme.

  73.  Changes have been detected in the constituents of urine of CJD patients, sheep with scrapie and cattle with BSE. Molecules which may be disease specific have been found and work is in progress to determine when the changes are first detectable during the incubation period and whether they are sufficiently specific to form the basis of a test. However, there are few signs that this will lead to a viable test for BSE in cattle.

  74.  Certain proteins which are present in normal animals are released in large quantities into the cerebro spinal fluid as a result of damage to central nervous tissue in BSE. Work is ongoing to establish whether they could be used as a basis for a diagnostic test. Markers in blood are also being sought using various analytical techniques. It has to be recognised however that techniques that may be viable in humans may be too cumbersome or dangerous for use on animals where samples have to be collected on a farm rather than in a hospital environment.

Protein structure

  75.  Further knowledge about the physical and chemical properties of the prion protein may help with the development of diagnostic tests. Protein chemistry is an area of science that would usually fall to the research councils to fund. However, MAFF is funding one project with Professor Prusiner's laboratory in California, where an assay dependent on the conformation of the prion protein is being developed and tested.


  76.  The Committee has expressed an interest in looking at the possible consequences for human and animal health of intensive farming methods and specifically on the scale and focus of MAFF's research into these issues.


  77.  The Ministry has consulted widely on the main elements of its Research Strategy for the period 2001-05. A consultation document setting out current work and future plans was issued in August 2000.

  78.  At present, the Ministry is considering the results of this consultation exercise—to which there are some 84 responses from a wide range of sectors. The newly-established MAFF Science Committee—comprising senior officials and outside interests representing the industry, consumers, academia, and the research base—will shortly be considering revised drafts, in the light of the consultation exercise. The final Research Strategy will be published in the spring.


  79.  As the Committee will appreciate, the majority of food animals—worldwide—are kept in intensive rearing systems of one kind or another. In terms of animal health, there are a range of advantages and disadvantages in these systems. Key drawbacks are:

    —  in general, infections and diseases spread more quickly and more readily when animals are in closer contact. This can have obvious welfare, productivity and economic disbenefits; and

    —  animals can be kept in circumstances where they have access to their own excreta, and the excreta of others in their group. This can impact on their own health and welfare. Most foodborne zoonoses arise from faecal contamination.

  80.  Against this, many intensive systems bring advantages too:

    —  there is an opportunity for cleaning and disinfecting of the system between batches of animals, notably in systems for rearing poultry and pigs. This can be a valuable means of breaking potential cycles of infection;

    —  many systems may allow better access to animals (compared to truly extensive systems) so that a range of problems can be detected and treated earlier, leading to improved disease control, and better welfare plus productivity gains;

    —  environments can often be better controlled—such as by heating and ventilation regimes—leading to reduced environmental stresses on animals (which themselves can lead to disease or welfare problems); and

    —  intensive systems allow regular and controlled feeding regimes, with consequent potential improvements in diet and nutrition, as well as economic and productivity gains. Control of feeding regimes provides less opportunity for nutritional stress, again linked to the amelioration of disease and welfare problems.

  81.  There is evidently a range of balances to be struck in the use of intensive systems for rearing animals. The Committee will be broadly familiar with these and they are not further discussed here.

  82.  MAFF has two main objectives (out of 10) which are relevant here:

    —  Objective 1: to protect public health in relation to farm produce and to animal diseases transmissible to humans; and

    —  Objective 8: to ensure that farmed animals and fish are protected by high welfare standards and do not suffer unnecessary pain or distress.

  83.  The Ministry has published eight public service agreement targets, and the ones in relation to these two objectives are as follows:

    —  reduce the annual incidence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) to fewer than 650 cases by 2001 and by 2004 be on track for fewer than 30 cases by 2006, a 99 per cent reduction compared with 1997 when there were 4,312 cases; and

    —  reduce the time taken to clear up cases of poor welfare in farmed animals by five per cent by March 2004.

  It also has more detailed delivery targets, in relation to eliminating BSE and investigating reports of poor farm animal welfare.


  84.  The Committee will know that the Ministry supports a substantial research programme, planned at about £106 million per annum for the period to 2003-04. This research is of a strategic and applied strategic nature and its purpose is to underpin policy determination as well as regulatory and statutory duties. We also have a substantial (circa £80 million) spend on surveillance and monitoring. In relation to intensive systems, our research and monitoring is designed to understand and deal with those aspects where the use of intensive systems leads to undesirable or unacceptable results. Examples here from the animal health viewpoint are:

    —  increased risk of the spread of diseases and infections; and

    —  decreased welfare—resulting perhaps from overcrowding; levels of stress; poor physical conditions on farms, in handling animals at markets or during transit, and at slaughter.

  From the human health viewpoint, our main concerns are to fund research which addresses particular problems of those diseases which man may acquire from livestock, poultry and other animals—so called zoonotic diseases.


  85.  Diseases which may pass from farm animals to humans are a significant and increasing cause of public concern. Zoonoses can threaten human health and can cause serious economic damage to specific food sectors, as seen in recent "food scares". It is important that we have reliable and high quality scientific information on the risks and effects of zoonoses in order to allow food markets to operate as efficiently as possible. Research also underpins effective and efficient control and monitoring of zoonoses. The planned spend for this programme in 2000-01 is £10.1 million.

  86.  Key policy objectives are:

    —  the development of sustainable approaches to the control or eradication of recognised zoonotic diseases;

    —  the investigation of variations in disease caused by recognised zoonoses and associated risks to public health;

    —  the investigation of new and emerging diseases that are detected through national surveillance or international intelligence so as to assess any risks posed to humans;

    —  the protection of public health through the use of methods of control that reduce (for example) the risks from residues of medicinal products and bacteria expressing antibiotic resistance occurring in food; and

    —  to ensure that the welfare of animals is protected through the appropriate control of endemic animal diseases.

  87.  Of foodborne infections, several species of bacteria occurring in animals are known to be capable of causing disease in man. Salmonella and E-coli are well known examples: E-coli 0157H7 causes severe illness in man but often there may be little or no disease in livestock. Control strategies depend upon reducing infection in animals and developing efficient methods for detecting infected animals or contaminated animal products.

  88.  Tuberculosis in cattle (bovine TB) was historically a major source of infection to man. This was brought under control through regular cattle testing, the removal of reactors and the pasteurisation of milk. The risk of man acquiring TB from cattle is now very low compared to the position in the early 1900s when many cases of human TB could be traced to the consumption of infected and unpasteurised milk. However, the incidence of TB in cattle has been growing in recent years. The Committee will be familiar with the recommendations of the Krebs Report and the wide ranging research programme which has been established to investigate the factors involved. This is looking at how the disease is being maintained and transmitted, plus better methods of detection and control. Research is in progress to investigate the involvement of badgers in the maintenance of TB in cattle and other scientific approaches include improved diagnostic methods and vaccines against the disease in both cattle and badgers.

  89.  MAFF carries out research on other zoonoses recognised as being of importance in the UK. For example, cryptosporidium, a protozoan parasite, is now recognised as a cause of significant human disease. The organism also occurs in farm animals; and outbreaks of disease in man have been linked to contaminated water sources. Field and laboratory studies are being supported to improve our understanding of the disease and to develop better methods of control.

  90.  There are a number of animal diseases already established in the UK (ie endemic) which pose not only a considerable financial burden on agriculture, but affect animal welfare, and in some cases pose an indirect hazard to human health. Endemic disease research has concentrated on those infectious agents known to be of major economic or animal welfare importance. More recently, the focus has been on the development of control methods which minimise the use of pharmaceutical compounds. Antimicrobial resistance is an increasing concern in both human and veterinary medicine and the expression of resistance is associated with the frequent use of antibiotics. Several antibiotics have been commonly included as growth promoters in animal feeds. It is now recognised that this can lead to the expression of antibiotic resistance by bacteria of livestock, posing risks to human health through the food chain. Reducing the use of antibiotics in the farming industry will lessen this risk, as well as prolonging the effective life of these antimicrobials in human and animal therapy.

  91.  The Ministry has important programmes of research and surveillance designed to tackle particular diseases affecting farm animals: these include research on mastitis, concentrating on mechanisms of resistance as well as immunological and other methods of control to reduce the use of antibiotics; new approaches on vaccines for important poultry diseases (such as Marek's disease, infectious bronchitis and coccidiosis); and alternative methods for the control of sheep scab where the industry is currently heavily reliant on the use of chemicals.

  92.  MAFF, the Department of Health and the devolved administrations support a wide programme of surveillance of zoonotic diseases in the UK. MAFF is represented on a number of cross-departmental bodies, notably the Microbiological Safety of Food Funders Group (MSFFG) which aims to co-ordinate research and inform the funding departments and others on the research which they carry out or commission. The views and recommendations of the Food Standards Agency play a major role in identifying areas requiring research.

  93.  International experts as well as the Independent Scientific Group of Experts contribute to an extensive programme of research into bovine TB, in pursuit of the recommendations of the Krebs Report.

  94.  On antimicrobial resistance, an Interdepartmental Steering Group has been formed recently; within MAFF, the Microbial Antibiotic Resistance Committee co-ordinates policy and research; and an EU Scientific Steering Committee on Antimicrobial Resistance advises on research and monitoring initiatives across Europe.


  95.  On animal welfare programmes, the current budget allocation for research is almost £3.7 million. The Government regulates farming practice so that the trade-off between food production and animal welfare is struck at the right balance which society deems acceptable. Research underpins efforts to achieve this equilibrium in the most efficient manner, with best practice adopted to take into account both productivity considerations and the importance of the wellbeing of animals. Policy objectives for the programme of research are thus:

    —  to improve the welfare of food producing animals in existing production and husbandry systems;

    —  to ensure that transport and slaughter systems are consistent with the highest available welfare standards;

    —  to support regulatory policies to drive up standards of animal welfare in the UK and across the EU;

    —  to develop and promote alternatives to existing systems; and

    —  to determine and refine the methods used to measure animal welfare.

  96.  Wherever possible, the Ministry seeks to promote welfare improvements on a European basis. Our research underpins our UK negotiating objectives in the EU, Council of Europe and other fora. Research feeds into standard setting. The advice and recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council as well as the need to comply with a range of EU directives governing farm animal welfare are important.

  97.  Current research into the welfare of farm animals is underpinned by work to improve our understanding and definition of the parameters that can be used to measure animal welfare. There are studies on pathological, behavioural, physical and cognitive responses to the environment and stress, as well as the causes and consequences of stress, including disease. Examples here are:

    —  for pigs, the development of alternatives to farrowing crates;

    —  on poultry, finding ways of preventing feather pecking and cannibalism in non-cage systems for laying hens which do not involve beak trimming; for broilers, leg health and the effect of feed control and lighting programmes. Research is also addressing the effect of stocking density on welfare in commercial systems;

    —  in respect of ruminants, lameness in cattle and sheep is under investigation, as are the welfare of intensively managed dairy cows and the fundamental biology of sheep scab;

    —  as regards welfare at slaughter, a programme aimed at assessing the efficacy and welfare effects of existing slaughter methods has been largely completed. New work has been commissioned to evaluate the neurophysiological basis for electrical stunning of poultry. The Ministry is also continuing to support the development of new and alternative slaughtering systems; and

    —  research in relation to the transport of farm animals includes the effectiveness of ventilation; the development of sensors which allow the monitoring of physiological stress; and projects involving drinking, feeding and resting behaviour in pigs. For calves and sheep, projects continue to develop secure predictive models to improve transport environments, including space allowances compatible with animal welfare.

2 February 2001

Annex 1


Terms of Reference:

  To ensure that a research strategy, which fully addresses UK Government's policy needs in relation to Human and Animal TSEs, is in place and agreed by all funders;

  To ensure that mechanisms are in place to implement the agreed research strategy and that progress to implementation is taking place as quickly as possible;

  To ensure that all relevant sources of expertise are being called upon and the information is being released to them as freely and as quickly as possible;

  To identify any barriers to progress and make recommendations for overcoming them; and

  To make regular reports to the Prime Minister.


  Sir Richard Wilson—Chair.

  Richard Abel/Ashley Ibbett—PS to Sir Richard Wilson.

  Professor Raymond Baker—Chief Executive, BBSRC.

  Sir John Pattison—Director of Research and Development, Department of Health.

  Professor Sir George Radda—Director, Medical Research Council.

  Mr Brian Bender—Permanent Secretary, MAFF.

  Professor Peter Smith—Acting Chairman, SEAC.

  Dr John Taylor—Director General of Research Councils.

  Professor Liam Donaldson—Chief Medical Officer.

  Professor David King—Chief Scientific Advisor.

  Professor Sir John Krebs—Chief Executive, FSA.

  Ms Lindsay Bell—Cabinet Office.

  Mr David North—No 10 Policy Unit.

  Joint Secretariat provided by Dr John Stephenson (DH) and Dr Mandy Bailey (MAFF).


Terms of Reference

  The aims of the Group are to ensure that the programmes of Research and Development funded in this field address priority issues of national interest and constitute a coherent strategy when considered as a whole. To achieve this aim the Group will:

    —  share information on the strategic direction of current programmes of Research and Development and on priorities and plans for future programmes, to produce a coherent Research and Development strategy;

    —  ensure as far as possible that there are no significant gaps in programmes and that undesirable overlaps are avoided;

    —  agree which body is most appropriate to take forward significant priorities, and remit them to the appropriate body;

    —  share information on selection processes and agree standards for quality control and handling results;

    —  provide a forum for discussion of joint work, and joint funding of programmes, projects, facilities and expertise;

    —  share information about funding and funding plans;

    —  encourage collaboration between research teams in this area, and the sharing of scientific knowledge; and

    —  share information about funding and programmes of research with relevant European bodies.


  Professor Sir John Pattison—DH, Chairman.

  Dr John Stephenson—DH.

  Dr Elizabeth Smales—DH.

  Dr Antonia Leigh—DH.

  Mrs Jackie Littlechild—DH.

  Dr David Shannon—MAFF.

  Dr Mandy Bailey—MAFF.

  Mr Peter Soul—MAFF.

  Dr Hilary Gates—MAFF.

  Dr Ann Nolan—MAFF.

  Dr Mark Pitman—MRC.

  Dr Katherine Finney—MRC.

  Ms Kathryn Newell—OST.

  Ms Barbara Richards—FSA.

  Dr Malcolm Anderson—BBSRC.

  Dr Patricia Chisholm—The Wellcome Trust.

  Dr Martin Donaghy—Scottish Executive.

  Dr Roland Salmon—Welsh Assembly.

  Ms Jillian Deans—HSE.

  Professor Bert Rima—Northern Ireland.

  Joint Secretariat provided by Dr John Stephenson (DH) and Dr Mandy Bailey (MAFF).

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