Brussels, 28 January 2005
What are Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs)?
TSEs are a family of diseases occurring in man and animals that are characterised by a degeneration of brain tissue giving a sponge-like appearance. The family includes diseases such as Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and scrapie in sheep and goats. While BSE has only recently been identified, scrapie has been known for centuries and on the basis of the available data is not considered to be transmissible to humans nor to pose a risk to man. However, as a precautionary measure, EU legislation to prevent the spread and transmission of BSE applies also to sheep and to goats.
Is it true that BSE has now been found in a goat?
Until now, there has been no evidence of the existence of BSE in the EU's sheep and goat population under natural conditions, but in October 2004 French researchers found a type of TSE in a goat that could not be distinguished from BSE (see press release IP/04/1324 from 28 October 2004). A panel of scientific experts at the Community Reference Laboratory (CRL) has now evaluated the research findings and reported to the Commission, confirming the presence of BSE in the goat. (see also press release IP/05/105). The goat was slaughtered in France in October 2002, but results are only now becoming available because extensive tests were been carried out, including the mouse bioassay which takes two years to complete. This incident does not indicate a risk to public health as the goat in question and its entire herd were disposed of and did not enter the food or feed chain. The case was detected as part of the EU wide surveillance programme designed to detect suspicious TSE strains in goats and sheep.
What safety measures are in place already?
In addition to extensive surveillance and monitoring, other safety measures are also applied to all farmed ruminants (i.e. cattle, goats and sheep), in order to offer the maximum public health protection. Rigorous and extensive legislation has been adopted at EU level to prevent the spread and transmission of BSE among cattle. On a precautionary basis, many of these measures are also applied to goats and sheep. The most important are:
What new measures are being proposed following the confirmation of this case of BSE?
Following the confirmation of BSE in a goat, the Commission is proposing increased testing for BSE among goats for at least 6 months (200 000 tests of healthy goats in the EU) to determine if this is an isolated incident. The extent of the monitoring programme will be based on the goat population in each Member State and will focus primarily on Member States where BSE is present in the cattle population. All confirmed TSE cases will be subjected to a three-step testing scheme, already in use, which will make it possible to differentiate between scrapie and BSE.
How was this goat discovered?
Ever since BSE was discovered in cattle, an extensive monitoring and surveillance regime for scrapie and BSE has been in place also for sheep and goats. Given this widespread testing, it is not a big surprise that isolated cases of BSE might be found, but it does not indicate that there is a widespread problem.
Monitoring and passive surveillance of the sheep and goat population for the presence of scrapie has been an EU requirement since 1998 and scrapie is a notifiable animal disease since 1993. Active surveillance of a sample of healthy slaughter and risk animals over the age of 18 months by using the TSE-rapid test was introduced in January 2002 (animals below the age of 18 months do not show signs of TSE). The TSE-rapid test is the same as tests used for BSE-testing in cattle, since those are designed to recognise TSEs. Detailed results of surveillance for scrapie in sheep and goats in the EU since January 2002 can be found on: http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biosafety/bse/monitoring_en.htm
The level of testing was greatly increased from 1 April 2002 in order to get an idea of the prevalence of scrapie in the EU. Over 140,000 goats have been tested using the TSE-rapid test and the results indicated a very low incidence of TSE in the goat population. Until now more than 140,000 goats have been tested in the EU with 134 TSE-positive results. Of those 134 TSE-positive animals, 30 animals were submitted for a second stage of testing (discriminatory molecular testing), designed to differentiate between scrapie and BSE. Six of these cases were shown to have a suspect type of TSE which could be BSE and were submitted for a third stage of testing (the mouse bioassay). Two of these have been proven negative and another three are in the final stages, expected to be negative. One case has now been confirmed positive.
Are goat milk, cheese and meat safe?
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has advised that based on current scientific knowledge, goat milk and derived products are unlikely to present any risk of TSE contamination if the milk comes from healthy animals (http://efsa.europa.eu/science/biohaz/biohaz_documents/709/bdoc_statement_goatsmilk_en1.pdf).
Currently, as a precautionary measure and following scientific advice, milk and meat from goats which are affected by TSE cannot be used. These rules were in place before the case of BSE in a goat was discovered. As for cattle and sheep, specified risk materials (the tissues most likely to carry infectivity if the disease is present) are also removed from all goats even if there is no infection detected. While it is not possible to say that there is absolutely no risk, any potential risk will be mitigated by the safety measures put in place.
In light of the above, the European Commission advises no change in current consumption of goat milk, cheese and meat. The European Commission has asked EFSA to carry out a quantitative risk assessment for goat meat and goat meat products, which is expected to be ready by July 2005.
What about sheep?
All the precautionary measures applying to goats, as outlined above, also apply to sheep.
If a BSE infection would exist in sheep, it would most likely occur in a Member State where there is a high rate of BSE infection. Therefore, an extensive testing programme was carried out on sheep in the UK. In the EU, about a million animals were tested for TSE and further stages of detailed testing to distinguish scrapie from BSE were carried out on 3,300 TSE infected sheep. None of these had BSE.
It has been shown that sheep of a certain genetic make-up (genotype) are more resistant or even possibly immune to scrapie. Research suggests that this immunity would also apply to BSE. Breeding programmes in the EU that aim to increase the population of sheep that is immune to scrapie are therefore an important long-term precautionary measure against both scrapie and BSE.
What about cattle?
The overall incidence of BSE in the European Union is falling rapidly and 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.
The incidence of BSE in the UK fell sharply from over 37,056 cases in 1992 at the peak of the epidemic to 614 in 2003. In other Member States the number of cases varied in 2003 from 185 in Ireland to 0 cases in Austria, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg and Sweden. The total number of positive cases in the former EU15 Member States in 2003 was 1,364 and around 800 in 2004. The new Member States that joined the EU on 1 May 2004 were not obliged to test for BSE in 2003.
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 some BSE cases will probably continue to occur until 2010 or later.
Details on the number of cases in the EU can be consulted in the section “Monitoring Results” on the BSE webpage of the European Commission: http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biosafety/bse/index_en.htm
What about the 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 165 confirmed or suspected cases in the EU up to 1 January 2005, mostly in young people. Most cases have occurred in the UK (153) and some in France (9), Ireland (2) 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.
Scientific information about TSE in sheep and goats
Before the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was set up, the Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) co-ordinated the scientific advice on BSE at EU level. The last opinion of the SSC on the subject of BSE in small ruminants was adopted in April 2002:
The SSC opinion from April 2002 is the most comprehensive scientific advice, issuing a range of recommendations in terms of extending the range of specified risk material, use of rapid tests, individual identification, breeding for resistance, flock certification and culling measures. It also describes how a combination of approaches might be used to protect public health in the event of BSE being confirmed in small ruminants under field conditions.
On 26 November 2003, EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards adopted an opinion indicating that there is no need to revise previous opinions on the breeding for TSE resistance, culling strategies or safe sourcing of small ruminants, based on the information that was available at that time.
On 26 November 2004, EFSA issued its latest statement on the safety of milk: http://efsa.europa.eu/science/biohaz/biohaz_documents/709/bdoc_statement_goatsmilk_en1.pdf
A statement of EFSA’s Panel on Biological Hazards issued today providing an assessment of safety with respect to the consumption of goat meat and goat meat products in relation to BSE/TSE can be found at: