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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Latest developments in relation to BSE

Agriculture Council

Brussels, 18 February 2002

I am pleased of the opportunity to update the Council on developments in relation to BSE. There have been a number of significant developments since we last discussed BSE at the Council meeting in December. I would like to focus on these developments under a number of headings.

  • Firstly, the incidence of BSE in the Union.

  • Second, TSEs in sheep.

  • Third, BSE in third countries.

  • Fourth, fats in calf milk replacers.

  • Five, developments on legislative proposals in the Council and Parliament.

  • And, finally, developments in the Member States

Incidence of BSE

The incidence of BSE in the Community gives mixed signals. The total number of cases in 2001, excluding the UK, was 957 cases. This is almost double the figure of 482 cases registered in 2000. However, most of this increase is due to the impact of testing of healthy animals who previously went undetected.

In addition, frankly, Member States who previously were not looking very hard for BSE have now learned their lesson and have hugely improved their surveillance efforts. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement in the area of implementation as the reports of the FVO consistently highlight.

Of perhaps greater significance is the age profile of positive cases. I am concerned that cases are being found in animals born as recently as 1998 in several Member States. The implications are clear: cattle were still being exposed to infection, most probably through contaminated meat and bone meal. The Commission will be looking very closely at the further evolution of the age profile of new cases.

TSEs in Sheep

You will need no reminding of the continuing concerns in relation to TSEs in sheep. A major concern is the continued uncertainty over the true incidence of scrapie in sheep. As scrapie could mask the presence of BSE, it is essential to know the full extent of this disease in the Community sheep flock.

Consequently, the Commission last week adopted a decision to substantially increase the level of testing of sheep for TSEs. Effectively, the number of tests will increase more than threefold to 560.000 a year, focusing on sheep aged over 18 months.

This measure will enter into force on 1 April and I ask for your full co-operation in ensuring that there are no delays in implementation. I intend to report regularly to the Council on the test results, in the same manner as I report on the results of the rapid tests for BSE in cattle.

The Commission is also continuing its policy of regular scientific review of TSEs in sheep. A further opinion is expected from the SSC later this week, focusing in particular on safe sourcing of materials from sheep.

Without wishing to pre-empt the opinion of the SSC, a number of new measures are in prospect. These include a further extension of the current list of SRMs, new provisions on culling of scrapie infected flocks and more use of geno-typing of sheep breeds.

In addition, the Commission will shortly present a proposal for a Council directive on the identification and traceability of sheep. This combination of measures increased testing, the response to the advice of the SSC and better identification will greatly strengthen our protective framework in relation to TSEs in sheep.

I accept that the risk of transmission of BSE to sheep remains theoretical rather than proven. Nonetheless, we must be pro-active in putting in place a strong protective framework throughout the EU.

BSE in Third Countries

Turning to imports from third countries, there are already a comprehensive series of measures in place under the TSE Regulation and its implementing provisions. The FVO has undertaken a series of inspection missions in the candidate countries in recent weeks and months. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay will also be visited shortly.

The initial findings arising from these missions suggest that many of the mistakes of the Member States in their handling of BSE are being repeated in the candidate countries.

Inadequate epidemiological surveillance, weaknesses in the implementation of the ban on meat and bone meal and in the removal of SRMs are examples. The situation differs, of course, with the best performing candidate countries comparing well with the Member States.

The Commission is calling on the countries concerned to take urgent corrective action where weaknesses are found. I also intend to raise the matter in the meeting of the Council with the candidate countries scheduled for next month.

The candidate countries are of course legally obliged to implement the acquis on accession at the latest. However, the Commission is encouraging them to be much more ambitious in the timetable for aligning their measures with our legislation. I hope that you can convey a similar message to these countries.

Fats in Calf Milk Replacers

In December I spoke to you of the concerns over the use of tallow in calf milk replacers. While the scientific evidence does not suggest that a total ban is necessary, my personal inclination is to go in this direction. The Commission will discuss a proposal on the issue with your veterinary experts later this week.

Legislative Developments

Negotiations are continuing on the Commission proposal for a regulation of the Council and Parliament on animal by-products. The Parliament will adopt its report on the Council's common position at its plenary in Strasbourg next month. The Council working group also met on the proposal last Friday.

This is a hugely important proposal. It is key to the safe processing of the millions of tonnes of animal by-products produced in the Union each year. The continued absence of a sound regulatory framework to deal with these by-products is very dangerous.

I would like to ask Ministers, therefore, to work constructively with the Commission and the Parliament towards a rapid agreement and early implementation of the proposed regulation. I know that it is a priority for Miguel and his Presidency.

In the same vein, may I again remind you of my continued concerns at the accumulation of massive stocks of meat and bone meal in Member States. These stocks must be destroyed and destroyed quickly. Otherwise it is probably only a matter of time before accident or fraud leads to a serious incident.

Could I encourage Ministers to read the own initiative report on BSE the Olsson Report - adopted by the European Parliament at its Plenary Session on 6 February. It contains a lot of very useful information on the handling of the crisis by both the Commission and the Member States. It is important that we take the recommendations in the report with the seriousness they deserve.

Developments in the Member States

Renate Kunast just spoke about the recent problems in relation to the testing for BSE in non-approved laboratories in Germany. I would encourage you to review your own national procedures as well to ensure that tests are carried out properly and in approved facilities. The Commission has recently forwarded a working document to your services with this in mind.

It is significant that once again problems arise for the EU stemming from a breakdown in federal responsibilities for implementation of community legislation.

I would, however, like to thank the German authorities for the rapid and firm action in addressing these problems. This is essential to reassuring consumers that their health is not at risk. Similarly, I would like to thank Member States for their calm response. It is encouraging that there was no panic reaction either in Germany or elsewhere in the Union.

The Commission has been assured by the German authorities that the decision to recall meat from bovines tested in non-approved laboratories is a precautional measure only. The reality is that, with a very small number of exceptions, the tests were carried out in a satisfactory manner.

The Commission accepts the judgement of the Federal Authorities that it was necessary to recall this meat, even if the risks concerned are not particularly significant. However, this decision also has repercussions for both the Commission and other Member States. Consideration will have to be given, for example, to the implications for community co-financing of BSE-tests carried out in the non-approved laboratories. The question of EU-financing of market support measures in which meat from the laboratories concerned was supported, also arises.

The Commission will be discussing with the federal authorities these particular issues over the next several days. The system for the notification to other Member States of meat exported from Germany will also arise for discussion. I appreciate that some Member States are unhappy with the manner in which this information was conveyed. I would suggest that this issue be discussed in the Standing Veterinary Committee later this week. I will report to the Council on any follow-up to these discussions.

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