The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is expected to issue a reworded advice about the issue after the meeting, based on the recommendations of its scientists. The reworded advice adds further cautionary advice to the public based on the scientific uncertainty.
The new disease is similar in effects classic scrapie, a brain-wasting disease that has been known for the past 200 years as a disease affecting sheep, but which does not affect human beings. The "atypical scrapie", as it is termed, might affect humans according to the scientists, who say more research is needed to investigate the disease before conclusions can be drawn on its effects on health.
The proposals, put forward as proposed policy by scientific experts at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to the regulator's board, could trigger a new food safety scare among consumers and a resulting drop in demand for mutton, goat and other products containing the meat, such as sausages. An outbreak of "mad cow" disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), resulted in an international ban on for the past 10 years on UK cattle due to the high incident of the disease in the country.
The agency's advice to consumers is due to be reworded to take account of the scientific uncertainty, adding further precautionary advice for consumers.
"It is not possible at the present time to determine what risk, if any, atypical scrapie may present to people," the updated advisory states. "Because the possibility of a risk cannot be entirely ruled out, a number of precautionary controls are in place."
The controls, similar to those put in place for BSE in cattle, include measures relating to animal feed and the removal of certain parts of the animal before the meat goes into the food chain. Whilst the agency is not advising anyone to stop eating sheep or goat meat or products, it says any possible risk could be reduced further by not eating meat from older animals.
"This is because if there were a risk it would be greater in older animals," the advice continues. "Meat from older sheep is known as mutton. In addition, some sausages are contained in natural sheep casings made from sheep intestines which are more likely to carry the disease agent and therefore could present a greater risk."
At a previous board meeting in March the FSA's scientists reported that it had recently been shown that atypical scrapie can be experimentally transmitted to mice and to sheep. The group agreed that, "since atypical scrapie is experimentally transmissible, the possibility that it is transmissible to humans must be considered".
At its board meeting this morning, scientists are also asking the agency's board to recommend, on the basis of current evidence, that additional precautionary measures are needed to reduce the possible risk to consumers from the atypical scrapie. The board is considering a proposal that the FSA should open discussions with the European Commission on labelling measures to identify meat from older sheep or goats and natural sausage casings made from sheep intestines.
This would allow consumers to make an informed choice about whether to buy the product, the FSA argues.
The agency's scientists call for further contingency planning measures, including a graduated strengthening of measures to protect consumers in response to one or more findings of BSE in the current UK sheep flock.
Cattle, sheep and goats are known to suffer from a group of transmissible neurological diseases known as TSEs. The best known of these is BSE in cattle.
Sheep can suffer from a related neurological disease, called scrapie. A recent opinion by the European Food Safety Authority recognised that, using the currently available tests, scrapie could now be divided into two categories - scrapie and "atypical scrapie".
Despite its name, which the FSA says may now be inappropriate, atypical scrapie does not appear to be a simple variant of classical scrapie, but is different from both classical scrapie and BSE. Atypical scrapie was only identified in 2002 upon the introduction of new, more sophisticated testing methods, although it may have been present in the flock for a long time, , the FSA stated in a document submitted to the board.
Atypical scrapie is has been identified in the UK's national flock, with FSA estimates putting the number at 82,000 cases. The disease has also been found in sheep throughout Europe. The disease has been found in sheep and goat imports into the UK from Germany, Ireland and Spain.
About 8,000 tonnes of UK mutton are consumed each year in Britain. The segment is worth about £400 million a year. The Meat and Livestock Commission estimates the total turnover of the UK sausage casing industry, related to sheep intestines, was £26 million in 2002.
The FSA estimates that if older sheep are kept out of the UK food chain would result in a loss of about £148m by auctioneers, processors, wholesalers and renderers if older animals are kept out of the food chain. About 700 jobs would be lost in the affected industries. An additional £48m would be needed if testing was put in place for all sheep over 18 months of age.
Before the BSE crisis in 1986, the UK's beef exports were worth about £1bn (€1.5bn) compared to £20m (€29m) in 2004, according to Food from Britain, a consultancy. The EU lifted the ban in May this year.
The board is meeting is scheduled to end after 1pm today in Bristol.