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British Columbia's top health official says human remains may have been mixed up in meat that came from the property of Robert Pickton, a suburban Vancouver pig farmer at the centre of a massive serial-killing investigation.

Provincial health officer Perry Kendall said Wednesday that he felt compelled for "ethical" reasons to come forward with the news.

"Cross-contamination could mean that human remains did get into or contaminate some of the pork meat that was produced," Dr. Kendall told reporters yesterday.

"We can't rule this out, although there is no evidence that it did happen or that it got into the food chain. But it is a possibility."

Dr. Kendall said human tissue may have been added to meat processed at the farm. Police have said they found human DNA in their extensive search of the farm.

But Dr. Kendall noted that the Pickton farm was not a commercial operation. Meat from the farm was distributed to a small circle of family and friends. Police have asked people who may have some of the meat to contact the missing-women task force.

Dr. Kendall said Health Canada and B.C's Centre for Disease Control have assessed the situation and concluded the risk to humans becoming sick from eating Pickton meat products is small.

"Given that this is pork, and pork is usually thoroughly cooked, that would remove any health risk." He added that there might "be a very small risk of hepatitis B from meat that was consumed raw or almost raw."

The announcement took police and family members of the victims by surprise. The RCMP task force investigating the massive missing-women case scrambled to mollify the public about the health risk and to reassure victims' relatives about the unsettling implications of Dr. Kendall's surprise announcement.

RCMP spokeswoman Corporal Catherine Galliford said police planned to tell family members of victims about the possibility of human remains in the farm's meat products but were caught off guard by Dr. Kendall's warning.

"We had an operation plan in place that would have seen investigators share this information ..... in person with each and every family member of the missing women. Obviously that didn't happen. There was a leak of information."

The police news conference, which was halted before all questions were answered, did not fully explain whether human remains were in meat products from the Pickton farm. Vancouver Police Detective Constable Sheila Sullivan said there is "no evidence that any meat left the farm in a contaminated fashion."

Mr. Pickton faces 15 counts of first-degree murder in connection with the disappearance of 61 women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Families of the victims were distressed by the development. They have complained often about hearing news related to the pig-farm investigation from the news media, instead of from the police.

This time, the news was particularly gruesome.

"It's shocking. It's disgusting," said Lynn Frey, mother of Marnie Frey, whose DNA was discovered at the farm.

Ernie Crey, brother of Dawn Crey, said he is troubled by the way the news came out.

"I'm very disturbed and very concerned about the families and the fact they will likely learn these details in this fashion [through the media]"

With a report from Rod Mickleburgh