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Brussels, 5 October 2005

Questions and Answers on changing BSE rules for beef on the bone

Why is the Commission proposing revisions to the BSE rules?

There has been a significant and consistent decline in the number of positive cases of BSE in the EU over the past few years. Moreover, the average age of BSE infected animals has risen greatly, and there has been no detected case of BSE in a healthy slaughtered animal under 30 months since January 2001. The data (over 41 million tests since 2000) suggest that any infected cases now detected were contaminated before the stringent BSE rules were put in place at EU level in the 1990s, in particular the ban on meat and bone meal. In light of these positive developments, and taking into account improved scientific and technical knowledge, the Commission presented the TSE Roadmap (see MEMO/05/263) in July 2005, outlining possible changes to EU TSE measures that could be taken in the short, medium and long-term. The Roadmap reflects on the potential easing of certain BSE measures, which can be now considered as unnecessary taking into account the evolution of the epidemiology, while still ensuring the highest possible level of consumer safety.

Why was beef on the bone banned in the EU?

The main measure of protecting consumers against BSE is the removal of specified risk material (SRM) like the brain, tonsils and spinal cord from every animal slaughtered, since these SRM have been shown to harbour almost all BSE infectivity. Under EU legislation, the vertebral column has been on the SRM list since 2000 and it has had to be removed from all slaughtered bovine animals over the age of 12 months. The production of beef on the bone, such as T-bone steak and Bistecca Fiorentina, is generally produced from cattle aged 22-30 months, and requires part of the vertebral column of the animal to be left in the final cut. Therefore, while there was no actual ban on “beef on the bone” as such, the young age limit at which the vertebral column had to be removed made it technically impossible to produce such specific beef cuts in the EU.

What assurances are there that certain beef on the bone is now safe?

The fall in the number of positive BSE cases, the increase in the average age of infected animals and new scientific data all point to the conclusion that it would be safe to ease certain measures in relation the removal of certain SRM. In order to have a solid scientific basis for any such decision, the Commission requested an opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the age limit for the removal of SRM from cattle.

In April 2005, EFSA concluded that, considering that there have only been 4 BSE cases under the age of 35 months and none under 30 months since 2001, and that the minimum age of infected animals has risen steadily to over 40 months, it would be safe to raise the age limit for the removal of the vertebral column from slaughtered cattle. EFSA suggested that a “considerable but not an absolute” safety margin for the removal of the vertebral column would be 30 months, and that any age under this would ensure even higher levels of safety.

Therefore, beef on the backbone from cattle under the Commission’s proposed age limit of 24 months is safe.

How did the Commission decide on 24 months as the new age limit for removing the vertebral column?

The most important consideration for the Commission for any amendment to the current measures was that the consumer would still be guaranteed the highest level of protection. On the basis of the EFSA opinion, the age limit of 24 months was considered by the Commission to fulfil this requirement. It was also chosen as the safest limit which would pose the least practical difficulties. The age of the animal at 24 months or older is easier to verify than that of some younger animals and 24 months is also the threshold at which certain other veterinary checks are carried out in the slaughterhouse. Therefore, this age limit will allow for more effective controls to ensure the removal of the vertebral column of all animals over this age, and will prevent unnecessary extra burdens on farmers and the meat industry.

What about other SRM rules?

In addition to the vertebral column, the current list of SRM includes the skull, brain, eyes and spinal cord as matter which must be removed and destroyed from animals over 12 months, while the tonsils, intestines and mesentery of bovine animals must be removed in animals of all ages. The TSE Roadmap does mention possible further changes to EU SRM rules, but stresses that any amendment must maintain the existing high level of consumer protection and must be based on sound scientific knowledge and data from BSE monitoring and surveillance; the possibility of introducing these further changes is still under consideration (for example the relaxation of requirements for the processing of tallow, collagen and gelatine, pending scientific advice).

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