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Press releases

Brussels, 1st August 2000

Scientists publish final conclusions on geographical BSE risk

The Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) of the EU has today published its final opinion on the geographical BSE risk (GBR) together with detailed assessment reports for 23 countries. The analysis is based on a qualitative model developed by the SSC that was applied to information provided voluntarily by these countries. In all countries where BSE is already found (United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, France, Portugal, Switzerland and Denmark), the geographical BSE risk has tended to stabilise or decrease since 1994 or 1996. The SSC came to the conclusion that BSE is likely to be present at levels below the detection limits of their surveillance systems in Italy, Spain and Germany and unlikely but not excluded in Austria, Finland and Sweden. With the exception of Switzerland, actual cases of BSE have not been discovered in any of the nine third countries that were assessed so far. The SSC came to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely that BSE could be present in Australia, Chile, Norway, New Zealand, Argentina and Paraguay. The SSC considers that it is still unlikely, but cannot be excluded that BSE is present in the USA and Canada .

It is important to underline that geographical BSE risk is not an indicator of a risk to humans via food consumption, but a qualitative indicator of the risk that live cattle could be infected with the BSE-agent. The risk to humans also depends on risk management measures. For example, excluding Specific Risk Materials (SRMs) like brain, spinal cord and other tissues with potentially high concentrations of BSE infectivity from entering the food chain reduces the risk to humans significantly.

This measure will apply in the EU from 1 October 2000 onwards. The scientists state that its proper implementation will also further improve the GBR-situation throughout the European Union. This will continue a trend that started with the European ban on the use of mammalian protein in ruminant feed (1994) and the Regulation of 1996 that imposed pressure-cooking of high-risk materials. These measures were instrumental in the development of this trend also in countries that have not had a case.

The task of analysis was given to about 50 external, independent experts who produced the 23 country reports on the assessment of the GBR. Support was provided by country experts who explained, clarified and completed the information that was made available by the countries. The open collaboration of most of the countries is highly appreciated by the SSC, as is the tremendous efforts put into this exercise by the independent experts. By way of thanks to the many contributors to the task the SSC included their names into an annex to its opinion.

Risk Assessment Approach

To carry out its assessment the SSC has developed a novel approach that is described in detail in its opinion. It is based on a simplified, strictly qualitative model that reflects the latest scientific knowledge in the field. The approach addresses the question firstly, whether it is possible/likely/certain that the BSE agent was introduced into a country and if so when? and to what extent ? Secondly, if the BSE agent was introduced, would it have been recycled ? or eliminated? Thirdly, based on the answers to these questions, what is the likelihood that today one or more cattle could be infected?

For the Member States the answer to the first question is that in all cases it is likely or certain that BSE infected animals or contaminated feedstuffs were imported, mostly in the late 80s when the BSE-risk was not fully appreciated and understood. Most other countries have not been exposed to this "external challenge" because they have not or only at much lower quantities imported potentially contaminated animals or feedstuffs.

The answer to the second question is in general that in the late 80s most countries would have recycled and amplified the BSE-agent. While in the Member States this is now not any more the case, in many of the third countries this could still happen. Combining these two general trends explain the conclusions of the SSC.

The opinion includes a discussion of the compatibility of the SSC approach with the OIE (Organisation for International Epizootics) chapter on BSE. The SSC sees its method as one of several possible ways to carry out the risk assessment that is requested by the OIE. The SSC-method ensures that full account is taken of the current scientific knowledge on the BSE disease, in particular on its main route of transmission and the long delay between infection and outbreak. The latter is particular important because the agent has already been present in a country for about 5 years when the first case is discovered. Appropriate credit is also given to risk management measures such as appropriate rendering, feed or SRM bans or other measures that effectively reduce the risk of introducing or recycling the BSE-agent. By using a constant framework, assessments carried out for different countries become comparable.

Transparency of the Process

Another advantage is the transparency of the process, which provides country representatives with the opportunity to correct misunderstandings and to provide clarifications. The openness of this process is demonstrated by the modification of the assessment for several countries on the basis of additional data received. During the public consultation on the preliminary opinion and the related country reports these countries came-up with new or corrected data.

One of the most obvious limitations to any risk assessment is the quality of the available information. The SSC found large variability in the quality of the data that were made available and appreciated the FVO mission reports, which were a very useful source of confirmation where available. Nevertheless most data sets still had some gaps and reasonable worst case assumptions have been used for the purpose of this risk assessment. To reduce the influence of personal biases, every country was assessed by at least three experts and all reports were finally scrutinised by a small team, mainly with a view to iron out the inevitable variations in appreciation, before they were presented to the SSC for final approval.

The full text of the opinion and the related country reports are available at http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/ssc/outcome_en.html

Beate Gminder : 02/296.56.94
ohan Reyniers : 02/295.67.28
Catherine Bunyan : 02/299.65.12

Released on 08/08/2000

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