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Health and Consumer Protection

Press releases

Brussels, 14 February 2001

Scientific Steering Committee publishes risk assessment if BSE were to be found in sheep

The Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) advising the European Commission inter alia on BSE related issues has today published a pre-emptive assessment of the risk to human health in case the presence of BSE were to be found in sheep under domestic conditions. The scientists consider that at the current stage there is insufficient information to draw definite conclusions on the potential risk to the human population. They therefore develop three scenario's about the potential risk and how to deal with it. The scientists state there currently is no evidence to confirm that BSE is present in sheep and goats, but add that the knowledge in this area is very limited and that the adequate testing methods and monitoring to confirm a diagnosis are not available. It is therefore necessary to start collecting the information required for assessing the likely prevalence of TSE in sheep.

BSE has up to date not been found in sheep under field conditions. Laboratory experiments have however demonstrated that BSE can be transmitted to certain genotypes of sheep and goats. In addition, it is likely that some specific groups of sheep and goats may have been fed meat-and-bone meal that was possibly BSE-contaminated, in particular before the EU-wide ruminant MBM feed ban of 1994 was effectively implemented by national authorities. Therefore the SSC reiterates its 1998 opinion that under the current situation it has to be assumed that BSE could have been introduced into parts of the EU sheep and goat population. The SSC underlines that there is a need to start collecting the information that is required to properly assess the possible prevalence of BSE in sheep in a country or region. The scientists notably point to the need for better and more intensive surveillance of sheep flocks, for developing rapid tests which can distinguish BSE in sheep from scrapie, for introducing a system of individual identification of sheep and for certifying the TSE-status of small ruminant flocks.

Feeding practices of sheep vary considerably by flock, country or region, farming system (intensive or extensive) and farming purpose (meat, milk, wool). The only testing method currently available to confirm the presence of BSE in sheep, using bio-assays in mice, takes up to two years before results are obtained. Very few of such tests undertaken have been completed to date. Clinical signs of BSE might be difficult to distinguish from scrapie, a disease posing no threat to humans. Scrapie is endemic in the sheep population of most EU countries. Research to develop better testing methods is ongoing.

The SSC also examined the latest evidence on the distribution of (experimentally introduced) BSE infectivity in the body of sheep and goat. As opposed to cattle, where the infectivity remains mainly concentrated in specific body tissues such as the brain and the spinal cord, the evidence points to a more general distribution of BSE infectivity in sheep tissues, possibly similar to the distribution pattern of scrapie. This would imply that a more comprehensive list of tissues would have to be eliminated from the food chain in sheep than in cattle, should it be concluded that BSE in sheep is likely.

As a precautionary measure, Community legislation already imposes the removal of specific risk materials 1 of sheep and goat from the food and feed chain in the whole of the EU since October 2000. In case BSE would be confirmed in sheep or goats, strict eradication measures would have to be applied with the entry into force of the new EP and Council Regulation on the eradication, prevention and control of Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathies expected to come into effect on July 1, 2001.

Released on 14/02/2001


1 the skull including brains and eyes, the tonsils and the spinal cord of sheep and goat over 12 months, the spleen of sheep and goats of all ages


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