University and college science departments have been warned not to use sheep's eyeballs in experiments because of risks to health. The move will increase speculation that Government scientists fear that the disease scrapie, found in sheep, could lead to BSE in humans.
Pickled or frozen eyeballs kept in teaching labs will now have to be disposed of as clinical waste. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food introduced the new controls in September "as a precautionary measure" under the Heads of Sheep and Goats Order 1996.
Under the rules, universities, schools and colleges will effectively have no access to sheep's eyeballs for experiments and existing stocks will have to be disposed of through a vet or other special measures. A letter circulated to schools, colleges and chief education officers assures them that no one who has been in contact with bovine or ovine material in the past should have cause for concern since most experiments are likely to have been carried out in controlled conditions. "There continues to be no hard scientific evidence that BSE is transmissible from either cattle or sheep to humans," it said.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is circulating advice on the issue to universities. Eyeballs sent to veterinary or medical schools for instruction or research purposes are exempt, providing they are stored separately from other animal materials. A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "The new order does not legally prohibit institutions from continuing to use sheep's eyeballs but we are advising against it and clearly they are likely to act on it."
In July 1995, MAFF advised against the use of bovine eyeballs in experiments because of "the remote theoretical risk to health". The extension of the rules to cover sheep's heads follows concern that BSE and scrapie may be connected and both may be infectious to humans. A spokesman for MAFF said: "There has been no conclusive evidence of scrapie posing a risk. This is just to eliminate any possible risk that it may affect human beings."
Peter Borrows, director of the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science, said in the past most schools had switched to sheep's eyes because of the BSE scare. Now the only eyes available would be pigs' but these were too small for many inexperienced dissectors and could pose problems for religious groups.