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BSE: Lifting restrictions on the trade of cattle and beef from the UK

European Commission - MEMO/06/108   08/03/2006

Other available languages: none

MEMO/06/108

Brussels, 8 March 2006

BSE: Lifting restrictions on the trade of cattle and beef from the UK

What is the UK embargo?

A total ban on the export of live cattle and all cattle products from the UK was introduced at EU level in March 1996 as a result of the BSE crisis, which affected the UK to a much larger extent than the other EU Member States. The first restrictions had already been put in place in 1989, banning the export of certain live cattle from the UK.

Several schemes were created to make it possible for the UK to continue to trade some beef, but this trade has been very limited. The Date Based Export Scheme (DBES) for England, Scotland and Wales and the ECHS (Export Certified Herd Scheme) for Northern Ireland made it possible to sell meat, subject to very strict conditions. These were that that the animal was between 6 and 30 months old, had been clearly traced and identified throughout its lifetime, its mother did not develop BSE, and that beef from cattle older than 9 months was de-boned.

There was also a scheme by which meat could be exported from another EU country to the UK for processing, after which it could be re-exported from the UK (for example a British company could make sausages with Belgian meat for export).

What is the current BSE situation in the UK?

The incidence of BSE in the UK has fallen sharply from a peak of 37,280 cases in 1992 to 161 in 2005[1] (October 2005) the majority of which were born before 1996. The “total feed ban”, which prohibited feeding of processed animal protein to farmed animals, has been applied in the UK since 1 August 1996. This has resulted in a particularly sharp fall in BSE cases in cattle born after that date. BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986. In total, around 185 000 cases have been confirmed in the UK, of which more than 95% were detected before 2000.

What conditions did the UK have to meet in order for negotiations on ending the embargo to begin?

The possible lifting of the UK embargo was foreseen in the European Commission’s TSE Roadmap published in July 2005 and discussed with the European Parliament and Council (see IP/05/952). In the Roadmap, the Commission set out two minimum conditions that had to be met before any negotiations with the Member States on lifting the UK embargo could begin:

  • The incidence of BSE in the UK had to be below 200 cases per million adult animals per year. This was the level at which the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) defines a country to be of at “moderate risk” of BSE (the UK was previously classified as “high risk”).
  • The EU Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) would have to give a favourable inspection report, indicating that the UK is able to comply with the BSE measures in force in the other EU Member States.

What did the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) say in terms of the BSE situation in the UK?

In May 2004, an Opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) indicated that the incidence of BSE in the UK was likely drop below 200 cases per million in the second half of 2004. This prediction was confirmed by EFSA in 2005. In its Opinion of March 2005, EFSA concluded that “according to the OIE classification the UK can be considered as a country with a moderate risk status in terms of BSE for its whole cattle population.” This is the same risk status as most of the other Member States. For full EFSA Opinion, see:

http://efsa.europa.eu/science/biohaz/biohaz_documents/catindex_en.html

What was the outcome of the FVO inspection in June 2005?

The inspection visit of the FVO in June 2005 evaluated the implementation in the UK of the main measures in place against BSE. Specifically, the inspection covered both passive and active surveillance for BSE[2], the removal and handling of Specified Risk Material (SRM), the system for identifying and registering cattle (aspects directly relevant to BSE protective measures) and the prohibition of feeding processed animal proteins to farmed animals. The inspection visit also looked at the follow-up measures taken in response to the recommendations made following a previous FVO inspection visit. The FVO presented their report to the Commission and other Member States in November 2005, stating that the UK had made satisfactory progress in its measures to address BSE.

For FVO report, see: http://ec.europa.eu/food/fvo/ir_search_en.cfm and enter inspection report number 7614/2005

What was the process for agreeing to lift the embargo, once the conditions laid down were met?

The EFSA report of March 2005 and the FVO report on its inspection of June 2005 confirmed that the UK had met the conditions laid down for lifting the embargo. Following on from this, the Commission began discussions with the Member States on the possible lifting of the embargo within working group meetings and meetings of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH). In line with these discussions, the Commission put forward its proposal to lift the ban on UK beef exports, which was (unanimously) endorsed in SCFCAH. The Regulation must be forwarded to the European Parliament, which has the right of scrutiny, after which the Commission can adopt it. The embargo will be lifted once the adopted Regulation has been published in the Official Journal, which is likely to be in April/May 2006.

How do UK BSE measures differ to those applied in the rest of the EU?

The UK must comply with EU mandatory requirements with regard to the testing and control of BSE. However, in order to manage its specific BSE situation, the UK has also implemented national measures against BSE which have been different than the EU-wide measures in place in the other Member States.

For example, the UK put in place the Over Thirty Months (OTM) rule to ensure that no animal older than 30 months could enter the food chain, since older animals are considered to be at higher risk of having developed BSE. In light of the improving situation in the UK, it was decided in November 2005 that the OTM rule would be replaced by the testing system used in the other EU Member States, which means that older animals can enter the food chain, subject to a rigorous BSE testing scheme.

Another provision specific to the UK is that all animals born before 1 August 1996 (the date that the feed ban entered into force) are permanently excluded from the food and feed chain. This means that at the end of their productive life (e.g. producing milk and calves), these animals must be destroyed. This rule remains in place, with no plans to change it. Animals born in the UK after 1 August 1996 are considered to be at no higher risk of developing BSE than animals in other EU countries.

One measure which the UK will have to adapt following the lifting of the embargo is its current age limit of 30 months for the removal of the vertebral column. The age-limit for removing the vertebral column will have to be reduced now to 24 months, to bring the UK into line with other Member States (see IP/05/1223).

Is consumer protection against BSE still assured?

Lifting the embargo on UK beef exports does not affect in any way the level of consumer protection against BSE in the EU. Firstly, as outlined above, UK beef is now considered to be as safe as beef from any other Member State, and no animals born before 1 August 1996 (considered to pose the greatest risk) can enter the food chain.

In addition, the most important measure to protect consumers is the removal of SRM (specified risk material) like the brain and spinal cord from every animal above 12 months slaughtered. The SRM have been defined in EU legislation and they have been shown to harbour almost all BSE infectivity, if any is present. The removal of SRM has been obligatory in the EU since 1 October 2000.

As additional protection for consumers, stringent testing requirements for BSE are laid down under EU legislation. All animals above 30 months that are slaughtered for human consumption are tested for the presence of a misshaped prion protein called PrPres, which is regarded as a marker for the presence of BSE. The objectives of the BSE monitoring are not only to assess the BSE prevalence and evolution over time, which the impact of risk reducing measures to be evaluated and enables the review of other measures, but also to protect public health. Indeed the testing of animals prior to slaughter may detect animals presented for slaughter which may have unnoticed signs of BSE and also animals with the disease which are not yet showing signs. The identification and removal of these animals will be an additional protection for the consumer.

The BSE post-mortem rapid tests operate by detecting PrPres in the central nervous system. Following slaughter, a sample of brain or spinal cord is taken from the animal using a special tool. This tissue is taken to the laboratory and tested for the presence of PrPres. Rapid tests are quick and reliable, and allow large numbers of samples to be tested.

What are the conditions linked to lifting the embargo?

Once the Regulation agreed by Member States in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health enters into force, the UK will be allowed to export all live animals born after 1 August 1996, and meat and meat products produced after 15 June 2005. However, as the UK has applied a higher age limit (30 months rather than 24 months) than all other Member States for the removal of the vertebral column up to now, the Regulation stipulates that any meat or meat products for export which were produced between 15 June 2005 and the date of lifting the embargo must be de-boned. Boned meat and meat products produced after the date on which the embargo is lifted (3 days after the publication of the Regulation in the Official Journal) will be allowed to be traded under the same conditions as meat from other Member States. That is to say, meat from animals under the age of 24 months can be sold on the bone in the EU. The UK will have to adjust its legislation to lower the age threshold for the removal of the vertebral column before the embargo is lifted, in order to fall into line with other Member States.

Why will only meat and meat products produced after 15 June 2005 be allowed to be exported from the UK?

This date was chosen on the grounds that the EU Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) carried out its inspection on the UK in June 2005, and delivered favourable results. Therefore, this is seen as an added assurance that any meat or products produced from this date has met all EU requirements.

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 EU 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 FVO’s inspection reports are published on the Commission's website at: http://ec.europa.eu/food/fvo/ir_search_en.cfm


[1] Figure up to October http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biosafety/bse/mthly_reps_bse2005_en.htm

[2] Passive surveillance for BSE is the testing of animals showing clinical symptoms that might indicate BSE - a requirement introduced at EU level in 1998. Active surveillance, introduced in 2000, is the testing of healthy slaughtered animals and risk animals using rapid post mortem tests.


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