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Little risk for New Zealand from mad cow threat

New Zealand is one of only six countries universally recognised as free of “mad cow” disease – but there is no room for complacency, a Ministry of Agriculture risk manager has told Waikato mayors.

Environment Waikato provided the venue for a meeting of local mayors wanting to hear about risks facing the Region from BSE from MAF’s national risk manager, Dr Stuart MacDiarmid. He said New Zealand had to maintain surveillance for the disease, even though it was not present.

The disease could not be transferred through imported British cattle semen, and New Zealand would not ban imports because the infection was found only in the brain and spinal cords of cattle with the disease. However scrapie, a related sheep disease which also does not exist in New Zealand, could be passed on through other organs.

“People fear BSE immensely because it has elements of the unknown, is insidious in its onset, and the manner in which it kills people is particularly appalling. We are the gold plated standard and one of the six countries categorised by the European Commission as essentially ‘zero risk’ with respect to this disease. However we have to remain vigilant to ensure that BSE does not enter our country.”

There was also a problem in that testing using the modern immunological methods currently being used overseas would require bringing known “positive” samples into the country. Some people feared that such “positive control” material might pose a risk for New Zealand, and for that reason MAF would not, at this stage, push ahead to adopt the new tests.

Chair of the meeting, South Waikato mayor Gordon Blake said there was still a likelihood that the disease could spread and it had reached crisis proportions in France and other European countries. New Zealand needed to remain vigilant and gather as much information as possible to stay ahead of the issues, he said.

The Mayors said while there appeared to be an extremely low risk, perception was the issue, and if there was no risk, people should be told that.

Dr MacDiarmid said while there was a low scientific risk for New Zealand, there were no absolutes in biology, although he personally did not believe there was any likelihood that BSE could be introduced and spread within New Zealand.

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