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SPEECH/01/555

David BYRNE

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Latest developments in relation to BSE

Agriculture Council

Brussels, 20 November 2001

I am pleased to update you again on BSE developments.

Testing

There is nothing new or surprising in relation to the incidence of BSE. The number of cases continues to be in the region of 1 in 1500 in dead-on-farm and emergency cattle. And 20 times fewer, 1 in every 30.000, in healthy animals. There is no significant change in the age profile of BSE cases.

The evaluation by the Joint Research Council of four new rapid tests has now been completed. The Scientific Steering Committee will now be asked to examine this evaluation. If it gives a favorable opinion, the next step will be to add some or all of these tests to the those already approved under the TSE regulation.

Work is also continuing at EU level but largely in the UK on the development of rapid tests capable of distinguishing between BSE and scrapie in sheep. The scientific challenge involved is very considerable. In order to avoid confusion, the SSC has been asked to draw up a protocol on how to investigate the possible presence of BSE in sheep.

Third Countries

The reported discovery of BSE in Slovenia confirms once more the extent to which the disease has spread. Three of the candidate countries now have confirmed the presence of BSE. The Commission's geographical risk assessment exercise suggests strongly that they are not the only ones.

I do not propose to enter into discussions on who should bear responsibility for this spread. Member States should nonetheless be alert to the need to show solidarity with these countries.

My immediate priority is to encourage the candidate countries to improve their surveillance and control measures. This has met with some success, particularly in the area of testing where six candidate countries now test healthy cattle for BSE.

My primary concern, however, is controls on SRMs and on feedingstuffs for ruminants. These are the key to the protection of public health and animal health respectively.

The Food and Veterinary Office of the Commission has already commenced a series of missions to the candidate countries. I will be acting on any findings in these reports that point to weaknesses in these areas.

I will also take the opportunity over dinner this evening to encourage the candidate countries to follow the direction outlined above. I hope that you can support them in this respect.

SRMs

I indicated at our meeting last month that the Commission is of the view that the current provisions on vertebral column or T-bone in cattle need to be reviewed. What we have in mind is an increase in the age from which vertebral column is removed from 12 to, for example, 30 months.

In parallel, however, the orientation is also to require the removal of the vertebral column in the abattoir or cutting plant rather than at the retail level.

The motivation for raising the age from 12 months is provided by the results from the 5 million tests carried out on healthy cattle. The youngest positive case found in these tests was in an animal aged 42 months.

In the circumstances the Commission considers that there is a strong case for raising the age for removal of vertebral column, for example to 30 months.

On the other hand, if we consider vertebral column to be a specified risk material we have to be consistent and insist on very strict controls on its removal, collection and destruction. I am advised that this can best be assured in the abattoir and cutting plant. It is appropriate in the circumstances to consider ending the current provision where it can be removed at the retail level.

No firm decision has been taken. The issue is being discussed in the Standing Veterinary Committee today and the Commission will decide on what to do next taking these discussions into account.

Sheep

The revelation of the flawed research in the UK on the possible presence of BSE in sheep in natural conditions has put us all in a difficult position. The unanswered questions on this issue oblige us to maintain a high level of precaution.

A key issue, which must be addressed, is the lack of information on the true incidence of scrapie in the Community sheep flock. The Commission is awaiting an opinion from the Scientific Steering Committee on the number of tests necessary to obtain a good estimate of this incidence.

On the basis of this opinion, expected later this month, we may present a proposal for an increase in testing beyond the modest levels scheduled to apply from 1 January 2002.

The Commission will also be presenting proposals shortly for improved identification and registration of sheep. This is necessary also to prevent against future serious outbreaks of diseases such as foot and mouth disease.

It will also ensure that claims for ewe premiums are accurate. This is of course essential to the revised regime on sheepmeat discussed today in Council.

Finally, there is currently no new evidence justifying a change in risk management measures in relation to SRMs in sheep. The situation will obviously be kept under review, especially in the light of the SSC's ongoing work in this area.

Any confirmation of the presence of BSE in sheep outside of laboratory conditions, still only a theoretical possibility, would of course radically alter this situation. However, the SSC remains of the view, set out in its opinion last month, that the current list is sufficient in the absence of such confirmation.

Meat and Bone Meal

I have advised Council on several occasions of my very serious concerns over the mountain of meat and bone meal and rendered fat that is accumulating in the Community. Quite simply, the facilities for disposing of the vast quantities of both are totally inadequate.

The report of the Commission services that has been circulated to you today points to the scale of the problem.

This calls even more for the adoption of the proposed regulation on animal by-products on which the Council is formally agreeing a common position today. However, this regulation cannot realistically come into effect for some time.

It is imperative, in the meantime, that the appropriate transport, storage and disposal schemes are in place to ensure that stocks are not diverted accidentally or fraudulently to other uses.

We need to be very alert to such dangers. It costs a lot of money to store and destroy these stocks. There is a very clear incentive therefore for fraud in "finding" outlets for MBM. We have to be especially careful that such outlets do not include animal feedingstuffs!

One particular area of concern to the Commission is that exports of MBM might take place to developing countries. There are very good reasons why such exports should not take place including the lack of controls in the countries concerned.

I intend to write to you shortly outlining in greater detail the Commission position on exports. In the meantime, I would call on you to ensure that the overall controls on MBM are strictly applied.

National Measures

BSE has clearly been a very divisive and difficult issue. However, I think we can all agree on a number of key requirements:

- Sound and independent scientific advice

- Strict implemenation of controls

- Transparency in our dealings with consumers

- An agreed Community framework of measures

Unfortunately, national measures can undermine our common efforts to combat BSE. I have repeatedly called on those Member States with national measures still in place to show solidarity with those Member States which have respected their Community obligations.

I am repeating those calls again today. Hopefully, with more success than in the past.

Thank you for your attention. I hope I have covered the main issues of current interest in relation to BSE and now look forward to your views.


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