European Union: European Commission Outlines Future BSE Policy

Last Updated: 21 November 2005
Article by Jackie Smith and Jane Gamble

Originally published November 2005

The European Commission adopted a Communication outlining possible amendments to EU policy on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("BSE") and other Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies ("TSE") in the short-, mediumand long-term in July 20051.

The Communication, the so-called "TSE Roadmap", is the product of numerous discussions between the Commission, the European Parliament and Member States on BSE policy. The Commission believes that providing that the positive trends in the BSE epidemic and scientific developments continue, amendments to the current legislative framework could now be agreed without endangering consumer health or the policy to eradicate BSE.

The amendments foreseen are consistent with and take account of the opinions and scientific advice of the European Food Safety Authority ("EFSA").

CURRENT SITUATION

Since 1994 the EU has put in place a comprehensive body of legislation to protect humans and animals from BSE and other TSEs. The key piece of legislation is Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 (the "TSE Regulation") which consolidated previous measures and set out additional rules for the prevention, control and eradication of certain TSEs.

Recent Community monitoring reports show a clear improvement in the BSE situation due to the risk reducing measures in place. There has been a significant overall decrease in the number of cases European Union of BSE across the EU, from 2129 cases in 2002 to 850 in 2004 and the mean ages of cases in healthy slaughtered animal has increased from 76.2 months in 2001 to 95.0 months in 2004. These figures indicate, in the Commission’s view that contamination occurred during a well defined period before the BSE measures came into force across the EU.

THE TSE ROADMAP

In light of these results and recent scientific and technological developments, the TSE roadmap considers which BSE measures could safely be amended whilst upholding the fundamental objectives of BSE eradication and consumer protection.

The Roadmap outlines the current EU legislation, the Commission’s strategic goals and presents possible future policy options for consideration. Among the issues dealt with in the Roadmap are the rules on the removal of Specified Risk Materials ("SRMs"), the culling of cohorts, aspects of the feed ban, monitoring programmes, the eradication policy for small ruminants, BSE-risk country categorisation and the current restrictions on the export of beef and derived materials from the UK.

SHORT-AND-MEDIUM-TERM GOALS

The short- and medium-term amendments discussed in the TSE Roadmap include, among others:

Modifying SRM measures

  • All SRM, which includes the skull, brain, eyes, vertebral column and spinal cord of all bovine animals over 12 months and the tonsils, intestines and mesentery of bovine animals of all ages, must, at present, be removed and destroyed to prevent it entering the food and feed chain
  • The Commission’s goal is to ensure and maintain the current level of consumer protection by continuing to assure safe removal of SRM but to modify the list of SRMs and the age of animals to which the removal of items on the list applies based on new and evolving scientific opinion
  • In light of the EFSA’s opinion supporting an increase in the current age limit for removal of central nervous tissue, the Commission suggests an increase in the age limit from 12 to 21 or 30 months in respect of the removal of the vertebral column as a first step
  • Removal of SRM in small ruminants is being studied by the EFSA and amendments may be considered in due course in light of the outcome of this risk assessment.

Relaxing the feed ban

  • Currently there is an EU-wide zero-tolerance ban on: the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal ("MMBM") cattle, sheep and goats; and the use of processed animal protein ("PAP") in feed for any animals farmed for the production of food (with limited exceptions, for example, the use of fishmeal in feed for non-ruminants)
  • The Commission’s goal is a relaxation of certain measures of the current total feed ban on a riskbased approach when certain conditions are met
  • The TSE Roadmap suggests lifting the feed ban provision for non-ruminants and tolerating a limited and prescribed degree of environmental contamination (of wild animal bone fragments) in beet pulp and a small presence of fishmeal in ruminant feed due to cross-contamination
  • Changes to the feed ban provisions for non-ruminants (notably those designed to prevent intra-species recycling such as poultry MBM to pigs) may be considered in due course. The Commission is still awaiting validation of tests designed to distinguish between non-ruminant and ruminant animal proteins and the EFSA is also undertaking a quantitative risk assessment of the risk linked to a small amount of MBM before deciding whether or not to propose the introduction of a tolerance level for the small presence of MBM in feed.

Targeted surveillance

  • Targeted inspection and sampling programmes have been in place since 2001, including post-mortem testing of animals aged over 24 months and the testing of all healthy slaughtered bovine animals over 30 months of age
  • The Commission’s goal, taking account of epidemiological and cost-benefit considerations, is to reduce the number of bovine animals tested and at the same time continue to assess the effectiveness of the measures in place with a better targeting of the surveillance activity
  • A gradual increase in testing age limits is foreseen as is decreased monitoring of cattle born in years from which statistically sufficient information on BSE prevalence is available.

Recategorisation of countries BSE risk

  • Current EU import measures regarding TSEs are based on the categorisation of Geographical BSE Risk (GBR) in accordance with recognised procedures
  • The TSE Regulation introduced five categories pending agreement in the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (OIE) on a revised international system. At the OIE’s May 2005 general session a simplified system was agreed
  • The Commission’s goal now is to simplify the EU’s categorisation criteria (that is, under one of three headings – negligible BSE risk, controlled BSE risk and undetermined BSE risk) and to conclude the EU’s categorisation of countries before the EU’s current transitional measures expire on 1 July 2007.

Review small ruminant culling policy

  • The TSE Regulation currently means that the detection of TSE currently necessitates whole herd culling in respect of cases found in goats and whole or partial herd culling in respect of sheep
  • The Commission’s goal is to review and possibly relax the eradication measures for small ruminants (sheep and goats) taking into account the new diagnostic tools available but ensuring the current level of consumer protection
  • Furthermore, the Roadmap suggests an increased testing regime within infected flocks and allowing slaughtered, tested non-infected animals from infected herds into the food chain for human consumption.

Stop immediate bovine cohort culling

  • Cohort animals are animals with no symptoms but which are assumed to be a greater risk of being infected with BSE due to an epidemiological link (‘including in case of female animals the progeny of a positive BSE case which are "birth cohorts" and animals which received the same feed as the positive BSE case in the first year of life, which are "feed cohorts"
  • Currently where a positive case of BSE is found in a bovine animal slaughtered for human consumption, the animal’s carcass, and those of animals slaughtered immediately before and after it, must be destroyed, as must all the birth and rearing cohorts of the BSE case
  • The Commission’s objective is to stop the immediate culling of the cohort, without compromising the current level of consumer protection, in order to help reduce the economic impact and social consequences of complete destruction of herds
  • The Roadmap suggests considering alternatives such as deferring culling until the end of the productive life or to allow slaughtered animals into the food chain following a negative rapid testing result. However, it acknowledges that in some cases Member States may prefer to retain total herd culling and that this would be a Member State decision.

Lifting restrictions on exports of beef and beef products from the UK

  • The UK can currently export live bovine animals only under certain specified conditions (for example, exclusion of cattle aged over 30 months2, de-boned carcass etc)
  • The Commission’s aim is to discuss the lifting of the additional restriction on exports of beef and beef products from the UK if preset conditions are complied with
  • The Roadmap suggests that the Member States begin to discuss the lifting the ban when two conditions are met – that the UK incidence fall below 200 BSE cases per million adult cattle, which the EFSA confirmed has been met on 10 March 2005, and that there is a favourable outcome reported following the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) audit mission that took place in June 2005.

The FVO’s UK audit mission report was published on 28 September 2005. It contained favourable evaluations of the protective measures against BSE in the UK. Consequently, the European Commission has confirmed that as the two conditions have been fulfilled discussions on lifting the UK embargo can now start. As a result, the ban could end in early 2006.

LONG-TERM GOALS

The TSE Roadmap’s long term goal (that is, during the period 2009 to 2014) is to modify measures in line with current technology and new evolving scientific knowledge. With the proviso that the positive trend continues, the TSE Roadmap envisages further relaxations of measures. Possible options include:

  • a gradual decrease in surveillance
  • further relaxation of SRM measures
  • testing of every animal with a live animal test, if available, at a specified age
  • certification of herds tested with a live animal test, as is the case for tuberculosis or brucellosis, and
  • reviewing eradication strategy regarding goats if genetic resistance of certain genotypes is confirmed.

The TSE Roadmap stresses that many of the proposed amendments outlined above would be subject to the relevant risk assessments being carried out. They are also predicated on the assumption that the positive trends will continue. The Commission does acknowledge alternative scenarios may be necessary if the positive trend does not continue. If necessary, it would not hesitate to advocate more stringent and permanent measures.

THE NEXT STAGE

The TSE Roadmap will be used as a basis for an in-depth discussion with Member States, the European Parliament and other stakeholders as to how the EU should proceed with regard to BSE.

The Commission emphasises that any amendments to or relaxation of measures in the future should be risk-based and reflect advances in technology and scientific knowledge, as well as having full Member State backing. It argues that the relaxation of specific BSE measures could have a positive impact on the competitiveness of farmers and industries in the EU, whilst enabling resources to be diverted to be given to other threats to animal and human health such as SARS and Avian Influenza.

The changes proposed in the TSE Roadmap were due to be discussed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety with national Chief Veterinary Officers in late September 2005. The outcome of these discussions will also feed into the report by the European Parliament on the Commission’s December 2004 proposal to amend the TSE Regulation3 under the co-decision procedure involving both the Council of Ministers (for example, the Member States) and the Parliament.

In the UK, the TSE Roadmap will be considered by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee which advises the UK Government on BSE and TSE science and policy. It will also be considered in due course by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) Board. In a related development, the latter’s advice that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ proposed reliable BSE testing system should replace the Over Thirty Months rule (which prohibits the sale for human consumption in the UK of meat from cattle aged over thirty months at slaughter) was accepted by the UK Government on 15 September 2005.

Endnotes

1. Com (2005) 322 final

2. The so-called Over-Thirty-Months (or OTM) rule introduced in the UK in 1996.

3. Com (2004) 0775

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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