Questions and Answers on BSE
European Commission - MEMO/03/3 08/01/2003
Brussels, 8 January 2003
What is the current state of play on BSE in the EU?
The overall incidence of BSE in the European Union is falling, led by the improvement in the situation in the UK where the number of cases in 2002 is expected to be around 3% of the number of cases registered in 1992 or 1993. In a few Member States the number of cases is still rising in 2002, notably due to the more extended testing for BSE since July 2001. There is an extensive range of EU laws in place to protect the public against the risks from BSE. Member States must ensure full implementation of all EU rules relating to BSE. If these measures are strictly implemented, consumers can have confidence in the safety of beef.
Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 brings all existing BSE measures as adopted over the years through more than sixty Commission Decisions into a single, comprehensive framework, consolidating and updating them in view of scientific advice and international standards. In addition it introduced a number of new instruments to manage the risk of BSE and other similar diseases such as scrapie in all animal species and relevant products.
What is the origin of BSE and what is its incidence in the EU?
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease of the brain in cattle. It was first diagnosed in the UK in 1986. It reached epidemic proportions due to the inclusion in cattle feed of meat and bone meal produced from animal carcasses. Up to 1 October 2002, there have been about 181,000 cases in the UK and about 3,200 cases elsewhere in the European Union. The distribution of the year of birth of BSE cases detected in 2002 is similar to that of 2001: most cattle were born in 1994, 1995 or 1996. This is a strong indication that the number of new animals having got infected since 1996 is decreasing, and that measures taken in 1996-1997 are producing a positive effect. At present, all healthy slaughtered cattle above 30 months are tested in the EU before release for human consumption and BSE is detected in less than 1 per 30,000 cattle. The animals with a positive test result are completely destroyed.
What about its human equivalent - vCJD?
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD) was first diagnosed in 1996. It is now generally assumed to be caused by the transmission of BSE to humans. There are 137 confirmed or suspected cases in the EU up to 1 January 2003, mostly in young people. Most cases have occurred in the UK (129) and some in France (6), Ireland (1) and Italy (1).
Estimates of the future number of vCJD cases vary widely as too little is known about the incubation period between exposure to the infective agent and the emergence of symptoms. However, it is clear that future cases will be overwhelmingly due to past exposure to infective material before the strengthening of controls in recent years.
What is the incidence of BSE by Member State?
Currently, the overall BSE incidence in the Community is falling, not only as a result of the decline in BSE cases as observed in the UK but also in most other Member States. In the UK the incidence has fallen sharply from over 37,056 cases in 1992 at the peak of the epidemic to 1194 in 2001.
In other Member States the number of cases varied in 2001 from 277 in France to 1 in Austria, Finland and Greece. These were the only cases ever detected in the latter three Member States until now. Luxembourg did not detect BSE in 2001, but has reported one case in 2002, as well as one case in 1997. Sweden has so far not reported BSE.
Details on the number of cases in the EU can be consulted on the chapter on statistics in the BSE web page of the European Commission.
What is the current testing programme for BSE in the EU?
In addition to the compulsory examination of all animals showing signs suggestive of BSE, rapid post mortem testing for BSE must, as of 1 January 2001, be carried out on:
In total more than 8.5 million cattle have been tested in 2001 and more than 10 million cattle will be tested in 2002. Details on the number of tests and the number of detected cases can be consulted on the chapter on statistics in the BSE web page of the European Commission. The Commission is co-financing the testing programme with currently 14€ per test (10.5€ in 2003).
Up until the middle of 2000, the majority of BSE cases detected were found by means of traditional passive surveillance, i.e. through the examination and mandatory reporting of animals suspected of showing signs or clinical symptoms of BSE. Since rapid post mortem testing started, it has become evident that additional cases can be picked up by active monitoring. Thus animals with non-typical signs, such as kicking, lameness, loss of weight and reduced milk yield will not escape detection. Such conditions are so common that it would not be practicable to treat all those animals as BSE suspects. BSE cases have also been found in slaughtered animals without any previous signs of illness.
The systematic active monitoring started in January 2001 in target groups such as fallen stock and healthy slaughtered cattle without any previous signs of BSE. In 2002, more than 2/3 of all BSE cases were detected in this way.
It was expected that systematic active monitoring would increase the number of detected BSE cases when the monitoring was intensified in July 2001. Since then the number of positive cases detected per month is stable or even decreasing in most Member States. In addition to the reduction of positive cases per month, the age structure of the positive BSE cases is shifting towards older animals in all Member States. This is a positive signal and shows that the measures taken from 1996 onwards are having effect.
The average incubation period of BSE in cattle is 4-6 years, but may in certain cases be much longer. Therefore BSE cases will probably continue to occur until 2010 or later.
EU measures to tackle BSE
What has the EU done to protect the public - what are the rules in place?
All Community measures are based on the opinions of the independent scientific committees of leading experts who provide the best possible scientific advice to the European Commission. New scientific evidence is regularly reviewed by the EU Scientific Steering Committee and other specialised scientific committees, which continue to give top priority to BSE related issues.
The European Commission's top priority is to protect animal and public health, and to ensure that food is safe from farm to table. To that end, and to ensure that meat intended for human consumption is safe, the Commission has introduced a comprehensive set of stringent Community measures in relation to BSE since 1990, covering:
It requires that: (i) only material from animals fit for human consumption following veterinary inspection may enter the feed chain, (ii) feed must be processed to highest rendering standards (pressure-cooking) and (iii) rendering facilities producing feed must be dedicated to such production to avoid possible cross-contamination. Also, the new Regulation extends the ban on intra-species recycling (cannibalism) that has been in place since 1994 in relation to ruminant animals, to other animal species;
How are BSE rules monitored and enforced?
Member States are responsible for ensuring that EU rules are put into practice in their respective territories: The Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) carries out inspections to verify the correct implementation, enforcement and controls of Community legislation by the competent national authorities. When a confirmed breach of the legislation is reported, the Commission initiates infringement procedures against the Member State concerned. The FVOs inspection reports are published on the Commission's website at:
What is the BSE situation in third countries?
Native cases of BSE have been detected in countries outside the EU. The number of cases in countries outside the EU can be consulted on the BSE web page in the Chapter Statistics – overview of BSE cases worldwide. The EU’s Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) has identified potential BSE risks in third countries based on factors such as past imports of live bovines and meat and bone meal from the United Kingdom and other BSE affected countries, and the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal (MBM) to ruminants.
The EU has accordingly decided that European consumers should be afforded a level of protection in relation to imports equivalent to the level demanded of EU sourced products. These import requirements are laid down in Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 laying down rules for the prevention, control and eradication of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
At the Commission’s initiative, the EU’s Scientific Steering Committee has carried out “geographical BSE risk (GBR) assessments” of the situation with respect to BSE in the EU Member States and in third countries. The methodology for this assessment was developed over a period of more than 2 years and published for the first time on the Internet in December 1998. The assessments are based on information submitted by the countries concerned in response to a Commission recommendation in 1998 setting out the information required for such an assessment. The information concerns in particular imports of bovines and meat and bone meal (MBM) from the United Kingdom and other BSE-affected countries, rendering standards for animal by-products, use of so called Specified Risk Materials (SRMs), feeding of MBM to ruminants etc. The methodology was updated with an opinion on 11 January 2002.
The SSC has identified four transitional categories based on the GBR assessments, as follows:
The Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 which came into force on 1 July 2001 foresees the categorisation of countries into five categories of BSE Status which is based on the current OIE Code. The Commission is currently engaged in classifying countries in relation to BSE. The final determination of the BSE Status comprises two steps. As a first step a risk assessment is carried out taking into account specific pre-defined factors. In a second step, additional criteria are evaluated. Based on the risk assessment and the evaluation of the additional criteria the BSE Status is established. Pending the determination of the BSE Status, transitional measures based on the classical geographical BSE risk assessment as undertaken by the SSC apply for imports.
What are the rules for imports from third countries?
The Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 came into force on 1 July 2001. It provides a layer of security in relation to BSE and asks the same measures to be applied for imports of beef into the EU like they are in the EU. For example, it prohibits imports of specific risk materials (SRM) or meat products containing SRMs from third countries and the third country has to ensure that the slaughter techniques of animals do not include techniques prohibited in the EU. The rules apply also to a list of bovine, ovine and caprine products (rendered fats, gelatine, petfood, bone and bone products, raw material for the manufacture of animal feedingstuffs) from third countries. Also, an international certificate is required for live bovines attesting that an effective feed ban has been in place, and showing a permanent system of identification of live bovines to their herd of origin.
For those countries where the existence of BSE is considered to be highly unlikely by the Scientific Steering Committee, no BSE related import restrictions are foreseen.
These rules are proportionate and non-discriminatory. The geographical BSE risk of third countries has been assessed/is assessed in the same manner by the Scientific Steering Committee as for Member States of the EU. This geographical BSE risk is the sole determining factor in deciding the level of protection required in relation to BSE. The existence of BSE in 17 third countries has been considered to be highly unlikely and they are therefore exempted from any restrictions. No Member State of the EU has received a similar status. The WTO rules have been respected by duly notifying the EU measures on BSE to third countries. However, in line with the EU´s commitment to keep evolving science under permanent review, any future new evidence will always be evaluated.
Trade implications are limited by these measures. Trade in carcass beef is not interrupted as there is provision for the removal of vertebral column (as SRM) in the EU rather than in the third country before export. Third countries must however have to ensure that the slaughter techniques of animals do not include techniques prohibited in the EU. However, most trade in beef is in deboned form and therefore is unaffected.
How are the Candidate Countries affected?
In the accession negotiations all candidate countries have committed themselves to fully comply with the EU rules on combating BSE. In fact, important progress has already been achieved: for example, all of them are already removing the specified risk materials from the food chain and majority of them are testing all healthy cattle aged over 30 months. The Commission is closely monitoring the progress. In line with this, the FVO completed early 2002 the first series of missions in all candidate countries to review their BSE measures.
The Commission is also encouraging the use of various support measures open to candidate countries for technical assistance. For example the use of BSE test kits in the candidate countries is co-financed and technical advice is provided through the PHARE programme.
What research activities on TSEs is the EU doing?
The European Commission has sponsored research into Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) since 1990. This research effort was rapidly and substantially increased following the announcement by the UK Government (20/03/1996) that the appearance of 10 cases of a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) could be linked to exposure to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).
Action Plan on TSEs and Fourth Framework Programme, 1994-1998
In April 1996, the Commission invited Professor Charles Weissmann to Chair a group with the objectives of producing an inventory of the state of knowledge on BSE, and proposing future research priorities. Professor Weissmann’s report was published in October 1996 and formed the basis of a communication from the Commission to the Council (COM (96) 582) proposing an Action Plan on TSEs. The Action Plan also took into account the recommendations of the Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee as well as ongoing national and Community research activities. Based on the Council recommendations, the action plan comprised two levels:
The co-ordination of activities between Member States, aimed at harmonisation of data collection and diagnostic criteria
A specific call for RTD actions, intended to stimulate research efforts at a Community level and to mobilise new and complementary expertise in order to attain European critical mass in the area.
The first of three calls for research proposals under this initiative was made in December 1996, the last in March 1998. A total of 54 projects were commissioned under this Action Plan, with support totalling €50.7m. This support derived from the BIOMED, BIOTECH and FAIR programmes. The Action Plan resulted in an excellent mobilisation of expertise in a wide range of scientific disciplines, from more than 120 laboratories throughout the Member States and associated countries.
The Fifth Framework Programme (1998-2002) builds on the foundations of the 4th FP, and has seen 26 TSE projects (~€ 30m) supported both from general calls for research projects (11), as well as from 2001’s specific call for TSE research (15).
In November 2000, the Research Council requested the Commission to establish a TSE Expert Group with a mandate to:
The Group is composed of representatives nominated from the Member States, Associated Countries, some members of the TSE/BSE ad hoc group of the Scientific Steering Committee and some co-ordinators of EU research projects. In April 2002 it was expanded to include members from Central and Eastern European States.
Included in the aims of the Action Plan was the objective to expand and regularly update the inventory of TSE research activities in Member States, originally drafted by Professor Weismann. An analysis of the most recent version of this document (April 2001) by the TSE Expert Group and the Commission Services resulted in the launch of a specific call for TSE proposals, intended to fill the gaps in the European TSE research effort, and a communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament (COM (2001) 323). A total of 15 new TSE projects were commissioned from this call with support totalling €21m, all of which, subject to the successful conclusion of contract negotiation, will commence in 2002.
In September 2000, a catalogue of the 54 projects funded under the Action Plan was produced, and remains available from the DG RTD Commission Services; this is currently being updated to include results and outcomes from these projects and abstracts of more recently funded projects.
Further enquiries on BSE can be send to mailbox of the Health & Consumer protection Directorate-General:
Full SRM list
The following tissues are designated as specified risk material:
In addition to the specified risk material listed in (a), the following tissues must be designated as specified risk material in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in Portugal, with the exception of the Autonomous Region of the Azores: the entire head excluding the tongue, including the brain, eyes, trigeminal ganglia and tonsils; the thymus, the spleen and the spinal cord of bovine animals aged over 6 months.
 Sweden, the United Kingdom and Portugal may derogate from the compulsory removal of vertebral column under strict conditions.