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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Speech to European Parliament on BSE

Parliamentary session

Strasbourg, 15 November 2000

Mme President, Members of Parliament

I am glad of the opportunity to update you on the latest developments in the ongoing crisis in relation to BSE. I had already anticipated addressing you on the Phillips Report released earlier this month by the UK Government. However, events in France over the past week clearly call for an earlier discussion of events.

Only the dangerously complacent or naïve could assume that we have safely put the BSE crisis behind us. Once more we are reminded that BSE is not a historic event but a real and present danger.

There has been a worrying increase in the number cases of BSE detected in France over the past year, in part due to the introduction of targeted testing. Moreover, the marketing of beef from a herd found to be harbouring a clinical case of BSE ignited public fears over the adequacy of controls to protect public health.

Clearly, we need to look at these developments and draw the appropriate lessons. That process must begin with a look at the facts. The current incidence in France is of the order of 7 cases per million cattle aged over two years. This falls far short of the international criterion of 100 cases per million used to define high incidence countries.

However, this relatively low incidence is no reason for complacency. The fact is that the incidence is rising in several Member States. In the absence of clear and transparent evidence that the incidence of BSE is falling, in all Member States, we must remain extremely vigilant.

More importantly, we must learn from this latest experience. Let me briefly outline my main observations in this respect.

First, the increased incidence of BSE in France is in large part due to the introduction of random testing by the French authorities. This follows from a Commission decision requiring all Member States to introduce such testing from 1 January 2001. All Member States should follow the French example.

Second, the utter necessity for the implementation of rigid controls on BSE cannot be over-emphasised. The fact is that there is a battery of controls provided by legislation. If these controls are respected and implemented, the risk to the public is reduced to a minimum. I will return to this point later.

Third, we must have total transparency in our approach towards BSE. The consumer reaction to BSE has been variously described as a psychosis, irrational or driven by panic. A lack of clarity and transparency in addressing the issue has contributed hugely to this unfortunate situation.

Finally, we must not overlook the huge progress in recent years, in the past year in particular, in putting in place a framework to tackle BSE. In the process, we have also begun the task of ensuring that EU systems are in place to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

I was, frankly, disappointed that there was no acknowledgement in Prime Minister Jospin's statement yesterday of the hugely positive role played by the Community in recent years. Inspired by this Parliament, the Commission has been the driving force in pressing for the adoption of measures to eradicate BSE. And, this was done notwithstanding the frequent lack of support in Member States.

This work is not complete. Important proposals, for example on animal waste and on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, are currently before Council and Parliament. The proposal adopted by the Commission last week on the establishment of a European Food Authority is an even more significant initiative.

We must not allow recent events to undermine this progress. I expect a strong endorsement of the Commission's proposals on the Food Authority from the European Council in Nice. Parliament can equally signal its commitment to the proposal by giving it the highest priority with a view to its adoption in the shortest possible time.

Returning to the issue at hand, the events of the past few weeks already call for a response. The Commission view that targeted testing is essential in establishing a true picture of the real incidence of BSE in the Community has been fully vindicated by the test results in France. However, it is necessary to put in place such tests on a much larger scale.

The public need re-assurance that the controls already in place are effective. Extensive testing now appears to be the most effective means of providing such reassurance. The Commission intends to put proposals to the Agriculture Council on Monday which will fully answer public demands in this respect.

The European Parliament has been a consistent and strong supporter of such testing and I count on your support for the Commission's approach.

The implications of recent events for the Community measures on meat-and-bone-meal are also at issue. Clearly, explanations are necessary for the increased incidence of BSE, not only in France but in other Member States. Time and again the finger of blame points in the direction of contaminated meat-and-bone meal.

France decided, yesterday, to ban meat and bone meal on a provisional basis. I look forward to the forthcoming opinion of AFFSA, the French Food Safety Agency, which will help inform the decision of the French Authorities on whether this provisional measure needs to be continued.

The evidence still strongly suggests that the increased incidence in some Member States has its origin in the period before the introduction of re-inforced controls in 1996 and subsequently. And it is certainly the case that the current controls are very strict:

  • there is a ban on the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to ruminants, notably cattle;

  • meat and bone meal must be processed pressure cooked - to very high standards;

  • specified risk materials must be removed and destroyed;

  • active surveillance measures, including random testing, are in progress to prevent cases of BSE from entering the food and feed chains.

However, these controls can only be effective if properly implemented. Many inspections by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office point to weaknesses in the implementation of these controls. In some cases, the follow-up to these reports in Member States is not taken with the seriousness it deserves.

This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable on public health grounds. It is also foolhardy as the alternative to these controls leads towards an outright ban on meat and bone meal with the attendant huge financial and environmental consequences.

Public health and financial considerations, therefore, both argue for strict implementation. The Commission, for its part, will continue to impress on Member States the importance of this issue. The Commission's Food and Veterinary Office already affords top priority to Member States' controls in relation to protective measures in relation to BSE.

I am asking the Office to once more carry out a fundamental and thorough inspection in the Member States in this respect. For example, the requirement to remove and destroy SRMs has only entered into force from 1 October 2000 and I want urgent on-the-ground confirmation that this requirement is being rigorously enforced.

Parliament's assistance in this respect would also be most welcome in alerting the public in the Member States to the importance of these controls.

Moreover, there is currently a major proposal before the Parliament and the Council for a regulation on animal waste. This proposal provides the opportunity for putting in place a comprehensive framework to ensure that all the relevant issues relating to animal waste are addressed. Again, I hope to work with Parliament in putting this proposal on the statute book as a matter of urgency.

Mme President, I now look forward to the views of Parliament on recent events. The current Community approach towards BSE and food safety in general is in large measure inspired by Parliament. We have worked very constructively together over the past year and I am confident that this will continue.

I will be happy to respond to questions and look forward to reporting to Parliament in the near future on further developments on this dossier.

Thank you for your attention.

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