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Success in Sight in BSE Battle

10 February 2012

ANALYSIS - Incidence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the plague of the beef and meat sector throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, has reached an all-time low, writes TheMeatSite Editor in Chief Chris Harris.

According to EFSA, the disease that saw more than 185,000 cases confirmed in the European Union dwindled to just 44 cases in 2010.

Research suggests that the source of this disease was cattle feed prepared from BSE-infected animal tissues, such as brain and spinal cord.

The infectious agent - a prion - which causes BSE in cattle can be transmitted to humans through consumption of contaminated meat causing variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). BSE and vCJD belong to a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs).

At the height of the crisis, consumer confidence in the food chain was at an all-time low and in response, the European Union implemented a new, comprehensive regulatory measures to improve EU food safety, ensure consumer protection and restore and maintain confidence in the EU food supply. The new EU food law created a functional separation between risk assessment and risk management.

The measures not only saw the cases of BSE in cattle drop significantly, but also the numbers of cases of Variant CJD, which at the time had some scaremongering researchers forecasting epidemic proportions for the disease.

In the UK, which the official records show was hit hardest by both BSE and CJD, the cases of vCJD between 1996 and 2002 stood at 120 with 28 deaths. Now there is just one case being reported a year.

The report from EFSA also shows that only two per cent of EU consumers associate BSE as a possible risk in eating beef.

The EU rules for the prevention, control and eradication of BSE, include an EU-wide total ban on the feeding of animal proteins to farmed animals, the removal of potentially BSE-contaminated animal tissues from the food chain and a comprehensive disease monitoring system. However, there are pressures within the EU to have the ban lifted on feeding animal protein to non-ruminants - poultry, fish and pigs.

These recent moves have caused some concern and protest within the farming industry for fear that unscrupulous livestock producers could once again let feed with animal protein in it be fed to cattle and sheep.

The European Union is monitoring the risk and cases of BSE and vCJD continually and reassessing the regulations as the risk decreases.

EFSA said that in the light of the reduction of BSE risk, EU measures are being reviewed and the European Commission has adopted a strategic document - the TSE Roadmap II - which outlines possible future changes in the short, medium and long term until the year 2015.

The basis of the roadmap and the most important measures adopted by the European Commission to eradicate BSE and prevent infection in the human population include the removal of Specified Risk Material from the carcase after slaughter and during processing, the ban on meat and bonemeal or processed animal protein in ruminant feed, and culling of animals and their cohorts that are found to have the disease.

The roadmap also concludes that "any amendment will have to be supported by solid scientific advice" and that in setting a future strategy "it is also important not to lose sight of other threats to animal and public health which have emerged in recent years, such as Salmonella and antimicrobial resistance".

For the food safety authorities the reduction in the cases of BSE has been a success story, but it is one that was not without its critics and resistance. The main success for the authorities has not just been the reduction in the number of cases of BSE, but the ability to convince the industry from farm to retail for action and to mobilise it.

Chris Harris

Chris Harris



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