Housecats rendered to pet food may recycle BSE
Out of Africa: new theory for BSE origins
Chronic Wasting Disease: Research Directions
Angry farmers take their beef to MPs as Commons reopens
Commission seeks £15m to rescue British beef
French lamb supplies hit by BSE curbs
Tough sale: Britain promotes its meat abroad

Commission seeks £15m to rescue British beef

By David Brown, Agriculture Editor, in Paris

Daily Telegraph ... Tuesday 22 October 1996

The Meat and Livestock Commission has asked the Government for £15 million in cash aid because it has run out of money to fight the collapse of beef sales in Britain.

The commission, a statutory body funded by levies from farmers and abattoirs to promote sales of beef, lamb, pork and bacon, has warned ministers that unless it gets the money soon to pay for intensive marketing campaigns, it cannot prevent a "catastrophic" and permanent 25 per cent contraction of the British beef industry.

This would lead to a string of bankruptcies among farmers and meat processing plants, it says. The commission's financial plight emerged yesterday at the Sial international food exhibition in Paris - one of the world's biggest food shows - where it was trying gamely to promote British beef even though there was not a scrap of it to be found thanks to the EU ban on British exports.

The commission, which is also seeking more than £2 million in marketing money from the EU, said it had used up the last of its reserves. Much of the money went into its beef mince marketing campaign, launched in the summer. This cost £2.5 million, but partially reversed a sharp drop in sales of mince after the beef crisis broke in March.

But Mr Curry said yesterday that this campaign was not as successful as it should have been because the Treasury refused to chip in another £1.5 million. The commission, he said, had spent more than £8 million promoting beef this year - about £2 million more than usual. But he added: "Make no mistake, if we are to meet the current challenge of the market place over the next two years, we will need to spend a lot more."

Tony Pexton, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales, backed the Commission's plea. "Beef farmers are finding it hard enough just now without having to come up with extra money. I met a farmer the other day who had received no income since May due to the beef crisis and there are plenty of others like him."

About 130 British beef exporters were represented at yesterday's show - even though they had no beef to sell. Nevertheless, most were in optimistic mood. Ian Smith, export sales executive of McIntosh Donald of Portlethen, near Aberdeen, said: "We have been keeping in close touch with our continental customers since the beef crisis broke.

"The French would have our beef back tomorrow if they could. They are complaining that they cannot get alternative supplies of the right quality of beef."

Ô A Liberal Democrat MP has reacted angrily to the disclosure that most beef given to Armed Forces personnel is not British.

Jim Wallace, MP for Orkney and Shetland, said military chiefs must change their purchasing policy in the light of a written parliamentary answer which revealed that most beef eaten by the forces comes from South America or Eastern Europe.

French lamb supplies hit by BSE curbs

By David Brown

Daily Telegraph ... Tuesday 22 October 1996

French importers called on the Scottish Office yesterday to lift BSE restrictions on an abattoir which have halted their lamb supplies.

The Edinburgh abattoir belongs to Scotch Premier Meat - part of the ANM Group - which supplies specially prepared lamb for the French market. The plant was forced to stop exporting lamb eight days ago because it also kills cattle which are being destroyed under emergency measures to restore confidence in beef.

The Scottish Office said the lamb must be processed in a separate plant - even though the abattoir is designed so that the sheep and cattle do not have any contact with each other. Yesterday, French importers were lining up to sign a letter asking the Scottish Office to change its mind.

Beef: Britain promotes its meat abroad

By Alison Maitland in Paris

Financial Times ... Tuesday October 22 1996

There cannot have been a worse year to promote British meat abroad. But the UK meat industry yesterday staged a nimble double act at the Sial international food fair in Paris as it struggled gamely to overcome its difficulties.

Downstairs at the Meat and Livestock Commission's stand in the fresh food hall, Mr Colin Capon, a freelance chef from East Sussex, was regaling a polyglot audience with a demonstration of British lamb and pork cuisine. The absence of beef, because of the European Union's export ban, was cheerfully passed over.

Upstairs, meanwhile, Mr Don Curry, chairman of the meat commission, was arguing forcefully for a £17m injection of funds from the government and the EU for a promotional campaign to restore British beef to its former glory - and in the bargain to save billions of Ecus on beef stockpiling.

"No individual food item has faced the mammoth challenge that the beef industry faces now," said Mr Curry. "We can't accept that our industry is going to shrink by 20 per cent for ever."

Before the BSE crisis broke seven months ago, the commission spent £6m a year on beef promotion. Beef also features in a generic television and magazine meat advertising campaign by the commission that costs up to £20m a year. The industry body is funded by levies on farmers and slaughterers and fees from commercial service companies.

Mr Curry, calling for £15m from the government over two years and a further £2m from the EU, said that beef promotion since the crisis had "drained the coffers" and that substantial new funding was needed for advertising. "We need to mount a heavyweight campaign."

He admitted it might be difficult persuading the government. In June, the Treasury blocked a request for £1.5m towards the commission's new quality mince scheme. Mr Curry said that promotion had helped to halve the 40 per cent drop in retail mince sales immediately following the "mad cow" crisis - but said consumer awareness was still not high enough.

Encouraging consumption, he said, was a better approach than stockpiling beef in EU intervention stores, at an expected cost to EU taxpayers over the next two years of nearly Ecu2.5bn. Consumer demand for traceable meat meant that much of this beef would never find a market.

The Scotch Premier Meat stand was notable for its lack of prime beef. But Mr Brian Noble, sales manager, was there to keep the lines open to customers in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

"They say they would buy our beef tomorrow, if they could," he said.

Housecats rendered to pet food may recycle BSE

Listserve 10.23.96

Assuming that a tiny fraction of cats with BSE-FSE ever get diagnosed as such (vestibular disorder more likely, no diagnosis at all likliest), there would be a potential for re-cycling the disease should these infected cats be non-discriminately rendered for pet food: From Summer 1996 Earth Island Journal v11, #3 pg 27-31:

"The rendering plant floor is piled high with raw product. Thousands of dead dogs and cats; head and hooves from cattle, sheep, pigs and horses; whole skunks; rats and raccoons -- all waiting to be processed. In the 90-degree heat, the piles of dead animals seem to have a life of their own as millions of maggots swarm over the carcassess."

"Rendering polants process decomposing animal carcasses, large roadkill and euthanized dogs and cats into a dry protein product that is sold in the pet food industry. One small plant in Quebec, Ontario renders 22,000 pounds of dogs and cats per week... The fur is not removed and dead animals are cooked together with viscera, bones and fat at 115 C for 20 minutes."

"Each year in the US, 286 rendering plants quietly dispose of more than 12,500,000 tons of dead animals, fat and meat wasts. ... Baltimore's Valley Proteins "hogger" vat contained an eclectic mix of body parts ranging from dead dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, deer, foxes, snakes, a baby circus elephant, and a police quarterhorse.... In an average year, Baltimore's pound hands over 21,888 dead animals to Valley Proteins [which] sells inedible animal parts and rendered material to Alpo, Heinz, and Ralston-Purina [US pet food manufactureres]"

"Valley Protein maintains two production lines -- one for clean meat and bons and a second line for dead pets and wildlife. However, VP President Smith reported, that the [final] protein material is a mix from both production lines. Thus the meat and bone meal made at the plant includes materials from pets and wildlife, and are about five percent of that product goes to dry-pet-food manufacturers."

What are the practises for disposing of dead cats in Britain?

Still legal to produce pet food containing MBM in the UK

London Correspondent 10.21.96

It is still legal to produce pet food containing MBM in the UK.: Quotation from CHRON.HTM, the official MAFF BSE chronology which can be located on the MAFF website: 29 March 1996
The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Amendment) Order 1996 (SI 1996 No 962) prohibits the sale or supply of any mammalian meat and bone meal, or any feeding stuff known to include mammalian meat and bone meal, for the purpose of feeding to farm animals, including horses and farmed fish. This requirement was introduced on the advice of the independent Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee.

Mammalian meat and bone meal may not be fed to farmed animals including horses and fish, so it CAN still be fed to domestic animals, pets, fox-hounds, zoo animals, birds of prey in captivity, and anything else not on a farm.

Quotation from the UK BSE eradication submission to the EU, which is also available on the MAFF website:

Para 6.9.5. From 29 March 1996 the sale or supply of mammalian meat and bone meal for feeding or for incorporation into feed for any farmed livestock, fish or equine animal was prohibited, as was the incorporation of mammalian meat-and-bone meal into any carnivore diet if livestock feed is produced on the same premises. In addition to the set schedule and in order to ensure compliance with the new legislation, all 160 mills were visited on 29 or 30 March to discuss the implementation of the new legislation and all were visited again between 4 and 30 April to collect samples. Contamination of poultry meat and bone meal with apparent mammalian material was suspected on one premises, samples taken at the time and since have proven to be positive. Investigations into this mill and the supplier of the meat and bone meal are in progress; a prosecution may follow.

The key phrase is "..... prohibited, as was the incorporation of mammalian meat-and-bone meal into any carnivore diet if livestock feed is produced on the same premises", so mammalian meat and bone meal CAN still be incorporated into carnivore feed as long as livestock feed ISN'T produced on the same premises.

To summarise, it is still legal to produce animal feed containing mammalian meat and bone meal and it is still legal to feed it to anything except farm animals, horses, and farmed fish. Horses are included, of course, because we export them for the frogs to eat. I'm afraid Rover and Tiddles are practically certain to be eating stuff which is now banned from the human food chain.

Can kitchen utensils be cleaned?

Listserve 10.20.96 Another potential question for cat-owners: do you still use a household kitchen utensil for dishing out catfood as before and how do you wash it.

This query makes me go pale! How many of us use a kitchen knife, or spoon or fork to dish out petfood which contains meat (and brain ?). Bloody hell, I do it all the time, and merely wash the spoon/fork/knife, as for kitchen cutlery. This gives me nightmares, but my (I know, most unhygienic) practice will cease forthwith.

Since only the UK has BSE and since all infected MBM has been removed from all food chains one need worry no more. Anyway if I were you, I would worry not about microscopic traces left on washed kitchen utensils but about dry dogfood that contains MBM since it's easy to inhale dusty MBM (I mean 'gravy') when feeding your pooch. Strange though that dogs, which have consumed vast quantities of MBM in petfoods, never once succumbed to a TSE. Unlike cats.

Out of Africa: new theory for BSE origins

Listserve 10.21.96 The UK may have imported significant quantities of MBM from Africa in the 80's. BSE has never been seen in cattle worldwide without a UK link so it is not an indiginous disease of domestic cattle. The greatest variety of cattle species in the greatest number of ecological niches is Africa. We know that at least one African bovine, greater kudu, is very very suceptible to BSE with a 12 to 18 month gestation period between infection and clinical disease.

Now even nicer is that one can easily postulate a good reason for an apparently detrimental disease to be good news for a migrant herd of cattle in Africa. Good enough to maintain the 'bad genes' that promote suceptibility or easy spread of BSE. As the herds migrate from one grazing area to another they pass through the territories of resident big cats. These big cats usually time their breeding to coincide with the arrival of the herds and they are very hungry when they arrive. Since cats are actually not very good at catching their prey the result ought to be that the herds are chased around by the hungry cats all day and all night and so would have inadequate time to feed and chew the cud. Any farmer will confirm that this takes the majority of the day if the cattle are to thrive.

How useful it would be if one percent of the herd, upon being stirred up by a hungry lion, would show inco-ordination and spasticity enough for a lion to spot and so be selected for a ready, quick and easy kill (ie *classic* BSE symptoms). One wildebeast carcass keeps a pride of lions quiet for the rest of the day allowing the herds to graze in peace. So a short burst of running, a quick kill, and ideal conditions for a peaceful graze for the rest of the day for all the other ruminants. Since one will get caught eventually anyway, the herd has actually lost nothing, and gained a great deal.

And if the wildebeast can arrange (and evolution produces amazing things) that the TE they carry is particularly infective to big cats, well they win both ways.

Where did this African MBM came from?

It was not given, This was some years ago and when MBM was identified as the most likely source of transmission. It was commented that MBM comes from all over the world and some examples of sources were given. One was 57,000 tonnes from 'Africa'. Presumably a search through dock records (eg Southampton) could confirm this.

Would any slaughterhouses or abattoirs in East Africa have been big enough for an economical production of MBM? Any country with a well developed ranged cattle industry would have adequate amounts of raw materials to justify a MBM plant, certainly near ports. World protein prices were very high around 1980, and I would have thought it would have been economical to produce and export this product. Indeed given the ease by which wildlife protein (normally unsalabe in the West) could be converted into cash by this method, makes it perhaps more plausible. Small scale plants are easily made with rudimentary equipment. Basically it's only shred/boil/(sun)dry, and it's not very hard to organise collection.

But reverting to your interesting postulate about felines and TE trannsmission; indeed, whilst staying out in the bush for months on end, I observed many times over, that either very young newborns, or grown up but suffering from ataxia's of unknown etiology were the preferred prey of hunting groups of lion.
To be truthful I have heard this said on wildlife films. The assumption being that parasitic worms of some unknown description were responsible. It could, of course, be that the wild form of BSE is also a cause for this along the lines I suggested.

Chronic Wasting Disease: Research Directions

22 Oct 1996
Dr. Janice M. Miller 
Ames Iowa Research Station
The scrapie project here has 2 primary aims at this time. The first is to do transmission experiments. Dr. Cutlip previously inoculated cattle with U.S. sheep scrapie. He has subsequently done a second passage (cattle to cattle) and got exactly the same syndrome, i.e., clinical signs unlike BSE (lethargy and ataxia), no histological lesions of BSE, and accumulation of the abnormal prion protein only within neurons. He also tried to transmit the disease to mice by intracerebral inoculation but that was not successful. We know the mice were susceptible because inoculation with the original sheep scrapie brain (the same that was used to inoculate cattle) produced typical scrapie lesions and prion protein staining by immunohistochemistry. So, that aspect of "bovine scrapie" also differs from BSE. The next experiments planned will focus on Chronic Wasting Disease. We plan to inoculate several different species (not determined as yet, but we have never discussed inoculation of pigs or chickens) intracerebrally to see what the transmission potential of that disease is and to discover what the disease will look like if it is transmitted. We got such a surprise with the scrapie to cattle experiment that we don't presume to anticipate what the results might be. The second focus of research is being conducted by Dr. Mary Jo Schmerr, a biochemist. She is working on use of the capillary electrophoresis technique for detection of prion protein. She has perfected the technique but the problem remains of preparing the specimen for examination. Currently she is using the same procedure used to extract prion protein for the western blot technique. That method is cumbersome, time consuming and expensive, which is very limiting for application on a large scale. Her objective is to develop a procedure that could be applied to examination of various products and tissues. Even if she is successful we don't see much chance for an antemortem application because the problem is accessing a tissue that has prion protein. In sheep the lymphoid tissue is a possibility but the practicality in a field situation is questionable (in my opinion).

With regard to the tonsil biopsy issue, we have not attempted that method. However, I have been doing immunohistochemistry on specimens collected by 2 other research groups. In general, the results are disappointing because most of the specimens have not contained lymphoid tissue so can't be interpreted. It appears that biopsy of pharyngeal tonsil is an expertise that only the Dutch have at the moment. Palatine tonsil is easy to obtain after death but I think it would be impossible to biopsy because the location would be inaccessible in a live animal (sheep or cow). One pathologist finally blocked in the whole area of pharyngeal tonsil, from a dead animal, and he told me that even then the amount of lymphoid tissue is minimal, so we are not too excited at present about the future of tonsil biopsy as an antemortem test. Perhaps with proper instruction, though, it would be more successful.

Transmission of CWD to ferret, mule deer, mink, ferrets, goat and squirrel monkey. Dr. Elizabeth Williams, who authored the original descriptions of this disease in mule deer and in elk, indicated that deer-to-ferret occurs. At a meeting in Colorado last year she discussed experimental transmissions and said the disease went into mule deer, mink, ferrets, and squirrel monkey. he mule deer work was probably done at Colorado and the other animals were likely inoculated by Dr. Richard Marsh at Wisconsin. They also had transmission to one goat but the incubation period was 6 years. In contrast, the intraspecies transmission to mule deer took only 18 months. Scrapie to deer or TME to deer experiments.
To our knowledge these trials have not been done.

Presence of the 14-3-3 protein in CSF of cattle.
Tthe bovine samples mentioned in Harrington's article were supplied by the ARS research group at Pullman, WA, because Dr. Cutlip told me he had not sent NIH any samples from our cattle, although he had collected some material for that purpose. It wouldn't be surprising for the cattle inoculated with TME to be positive for the protein because they certainly have classical lesions. The article mentions a positive result in 1 animal that had clinical signs but no characteristic lesions and I assume that was the scrapie animal referred to. If that sample came from Dr. Robinson at Pullman, it was probably one of the cattle he inoculated with "bovine scrapie" brain from an experiment done many years ago but only recently published (Clark et al, Am J Vet Res 56:606-612, 1995).

That first sheep to cattle experiment was similar to Dr. Cutlip's, with a similar outcome, although less overall succes (only 3 of 10 inoculates developed clinical signs). It wasn't published at the time because no one believed the cattle could develop clinical CNS disease without classical scrapie histopathology. Later, with the prion protein as a marker, the transmission was verified. We know that Dr. Robinson also has inoculated cattle with sheep scrapie and he could have sent the NIH people some CSF from one of those.

We have not seen any pathology reports on the cattle he inoculated with the sheep scrapie material so I can't comment on whether or the cattle had typical spongiform lesions or not. Dr. Robinson inoculated some cattle using brains from 3 of the same sheep used by Dr. Cutlip but he also inoculated some other cattle with material from different sheep that were obtained locally. We've seen unconfirmed reports by Dr. Robinson that some of the cattle in his experiments had typical BSE lesions. However, the paper hasn't been written so we don't know if the communication between Dr. Hadlow (the pathologist) and Dr. Robinson was accurate.

Dr. Robinson is now in Austria so publication of the work has been delayed and at this point we aren't really sure what happened. It will be important to find out whether there are some strains of U.S. scrapie that produce typical BSE and some that don't. Right now some people are assuming that results of the U.S. experiments can be extrapolated to the stuation in England and are concluding that BSE didn't come from scrapie. That conclusion seems premature in my opinion. The first experiment was done with two sources of material, one scrapie sheep and one goat that had contracted scrapie by contact with sheep. Dr. Cutlip used a pool of 9 sheep brains for his experiment, although only 6 were later verified as scrapie cases. It would be surprising to find the 14-3-3 protein in CSF of "bovine scrapie" cases, when neuronal damage is not apparent. However, we do see massive accumulation of the prion protein inside of neurons in these animals, so there could be significant damage occuring that is not detected by routine histopathological observation. Regarding the question of pathology in Dr. Robinson's TME inoculates, as I understand it the pathology was the same as that reported by Dr. Marsh in his cattle. Dr. Hadlow has stated, however, that in his opinion the lesions produced in cattle by TME are even more severe than those of BSE. He spent 6 months in England studying BSE so I think his observation has merit.

References for CWD.
There are an additional 3 articles published by Dr. Williams. The first 2 are the original descriptions (mule deer in 1980 and elk in 1982). The other article, which is a review of the disease, appeared in Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz. 11:552-567, 1992. Another paper will appear in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases in January, 1997, by Dr. Terry Spraker, et al. It describes the occurrence of CWD in free-ranging cervidae of Colorado and Wyoming. That information has not been published previously, although Dr. Williams alludes to it in her 1992 article. I only know about it because I did the immunohistochemistry as part of the confirmation process.

The Mad Cow Saga: A Moot Issue?

The Mad Cow Saga: A Moot Issue?

Prof. Scott C. Ratzan MD, MPA

Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Health Communication
Editor: Mad Cows: Health and the Public Good (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 1997). 
Director:Emerson-Tufts Program in Health Communication;Center for Ethics in Political and Health Comm., Boston.
Fri, 18 Oct 1996
It has now been six months since a British government report suggested that mad cow disease -- a disease prevalent in British beef -- could be transmissible to humans. This initiated a media frenzy which crippled the British beef industry and sparked questions regarding the safety of the food supply throughout the world. This frenzy has escalated to become 3the biggest crisis the European Union had ever had according to European Commissioner for agriculture Franz Fischler.

However, few people challenged the veracity of the claims or the quality of evidence. While the British government tried to calm such food-related fears, a ban on British beef products was proclaimed by the European Union. European domestic politics interceded. The result -- a British blockade of legislation and a threat to leave the European Union. Negotiation focused on doing something -- rather than doing the right thing.

Now, new evidence has surfaced, including a University of Oxford study focusing on the decreasing prevalence of BSE in cattle further weakening any potential link to humans. This issue highlights the difficulty of accurately communicating and disseminating health information. Even today, years since public discussion began on BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), and a microscopically similar disease in humans CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), misinformation continues to dominate the discourse. The power of the rhetorical repetition of BSE as simply mad cow disease permeates the public minds fostering an erroneous conclusion that humans will get it from ingesting meat from cows or sheep/lamb.

Different groups shirk responsibility. The medical community calls mad cow disease a veterinary issue. The veterinarians say it is a government/public health issue. The government, having no clear communication strategy, acknowledges it as a scientific dilemma and blames the media. The media is keen to report it while the political and medical reporters vie to write the lead story. All this makes good news.

Yet, U.K. and Swiss farmers watch as their herds are untimely culled and beef demand diminished. At the same time, French cattle farmers blocked roads and marched their 3healthy2 cattle around the Eiffel Tower in protest of policy and the falling demand and price of beef. Today, there are fewer mad cows since the governmental report was released, but the same mystery shrouds the unaccountable human deaths.

Europeans are consuming one-third less beef, while the verifiable facts suggest only cows die of Mad Cow Disease. There has yet to be a single documented case of CJD - the purported human equivalent - from ingesting meat from beef, lamb or related dairy products. (Similarly, the theorized infectious agent in cattle -- a prion -- has never been identified in any meat for human consumption.)

Nonetheless, earlier this summer in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), in an effort to assuage concern that this could happen in the United States, issued a statement heralded in a lead in the nation1s paper of record in the New York Times: There is no evidence that anyone in the United States has died of the mad cow disease that has killed eight people in Britain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today. [emphasis added]

Of course, this similar statement could be made anywhere in the world, given its inaccurate implication of causation. The only proven victims of BSE/mad cow disease are the cattle they infect, as the pejorative name suggests. Unfortunately, discovery of information, specifically scientific and medical breakthroughs, does not occur overnight in a way that fits into neatly succinct stories or soundbites preferred by the popular media.

Although there has been a four-fold increase in medically related news during the past two decades news in the New York Times, we are all limited on where to find the best and most accurate information. The 25,000 scientific/medical journals published throughout the world do not inform each of us, nor do our health care providers as we continue to get about 85% of our health information from non-medical sources.

As we rely upon government to provide accurate health information, the reality is that we have a knowledge deficit. Instead, tabloid television, talk shows and other forms of infotainment fill the knowledge gap with their own kind of substance abuse. What gets lost is the public's right to know the facts, prior to acceptance of fallacious claims that grab attention but fail to meet the test of sound logic. The result is an absence of public confidence.

Suffice it to say, all hold fast to the ideal that to make the best decisions in health and other vital areas of life, we need accurate information presented to us objectively and ethically. Advocating such an outlook unites all of us dedicated to the art of effective health communication. Absent clear leadership from government, we have no choice but to hope the media and all those who are involved in discovery and dissemination of health related information can rise to the task and serve as an ethical compass in helping the public digest such material as part of our daily diet.

If neither the government nor the media begin to think of the consequences of the current laissez-faire approach to communicating health, a similar disaster lurks on the horizon.

Angry farmers take their beef to MPs as Commons reopens

by Michael Hornsby, Agriculture Correspondent

The Times ... October 23 1996

Up to 2,000 farmers will gather in London today to bring their grievances to the attention of MPs at the State Opening of Parliament.

A rally at Central Methodist Hall, followed by a lobby of the House of Commons, will reflect the mood triggered by what farmers see as inept handling of the BSE crisis. In recent weeks rural protesters disrupted the Tory party conference in Bournemouth and the police had to rescue Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, and William Hague, the Welsh Secretary, from angry farmers.

Martin Howlett, who keeps about 150 beef cattle at Deer Park Farm at Luckett, Cornwall, was in Bournemouth and plans to be in London today. "Farmers have always grumbled but usually to each other in the pub or at market," he said. "Taking to the streets is not the first thing we think of, unlike the French. We prefer to talk through prob lems but desperation is setting in." Anger is strongest among beef farmers, such as Mr Howlett, who feel they are being punished for a problem not of their making. He has not had a single case of BSE, essentially an affliction of dairy herds, but has been hit by low prices just the same.

Feelings are running particularly high in southwest England, where cattle are the lifeblood of farming. It is also the region with the biggest backlog of cattle over 30 months old awaiting slaughter and incineration because they are deemed to be at higher risk of developing BSE.

Farmers like Mr Howlett are, for the most part, lifelong Tory voters but say they will not turn out at the next election. Sir Robert Hicks, the retiring Tory MP for Cornwall South East, said: "I have warned the Prime Minister that there are up to eight marginal Tory seats of an essentially rural character in the West Country south of Bristol where a swing of 5 per cent or less would be enough for them to change hands." Sir Robert's seat, which would be vulnerable to a 6.5 per cent swing, might not be safe.

The National Farmers' Union said yesterday that 60,000 hill farmers were suffering dramatic income losses because of the effect of BSE. Farmers were being forced to market their cattle for up to 30 per cent less than a year ago.

Kevin Pearce, the NFU's northeast regional policy adviser, said: "In early sales, hill farmers have been selling steers and heifers for fattening for between £325 and £400 a head, which is up to £150 less than last year." Cattle sold for slaughter are fetching between £425 and £500, compared with up to £675 last autumn. Farmers with cattle over the age of 30 months, which can no longer be sold for food, are facing even sharper price falls.