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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speaking note on BSE of David Byrne, European Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection, at the Agriculture Council in Brussels on 22 May 2001

I am pleased to update you on the current situation in relation to BSE.

The European Parliament recently adopted its second stage opinion on the proposed regulation on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). This opinion endorses the common position agreed by the Council in December. The way is now open for the regulation to enter into force on 1 July.

This is a very welcome and significant development. The regulation is a major landmark in the Community approach towards BSE. For the first time, it provides us with a comprehensive framework to address a range of relevant issues. For example:-

  • Risk classification of Member States and Third Countries;
  • Rules for marketing of animals and their products in intra-community and domestic trade, import and export;
  • Surveillance and eradication measures;
  • Specified risk materials and the ban on meat and bone meal;
  • Testing for BSE.

Meanwhile very good progress is also being made on the proposed regulation on animal by-products. The present indications are that the European Parliament may be in a position to adopt its opinion on the proposal in June. This in turn will allow the possibility for agreement on a common position by this Council at our meeting in June.

In the meantime, I hope to present a number of proposals for an opinion to the Standing Veterinary Committee. Some of these are necessary transition measures related to the entry into force of the regulation on TSEs.

For example, I will be proposing the prolongation of the existing suspension on meat and bone meal, as agreed at our meeting in Luxembourg. There is also a need to introduce new measures in relation to imports from third countries where there are potential weaknesses in the existing situation.

I will also be suggesting a review of our existing approach towards eradication of BSE, allowing for a situation where total herd slaughter might not be necessary. Finally, the Commission also envisages a proposal to allow Member States to test for BSE below thirty months, provided this is done on a voluntary basis and in a non-discriminatory manner.

I also intend to present a proposal to the Standing Veterinary Committee to provide for a lowering of the age of testing of "at risk" bovines. And the introduction of testing for TSEs, for the first time, of small ruminants, notably sheep. This testing will concentrate on two target groups. First, healthy slaughtered animals. Second, dead on-farm animals. It will, hopefully, improve our current knowledge on the true extent of TSEs in small ruminants.

Clearly, we need to keep our approach towards BSE under continual review. This is essential to ensure that there is no complacency. And to ensure that all necessary measures are being taken to protect the public. The results of the BSE testing programme introduced from 1 January is an invaluable source of information on the future direction our policies should take.

I have already updated you on a number of previous occasions on the outcome of the test results to date. However, with each passing month, the amount of available information increases substantially, greatly improving our understanding of the epidemiology of BSE.

The principal trends emerging from the tests carried out up to the end of April can be summarised as follows:

  • 75 cases of BSE were found as a result of more than 1,75 million tests carried out on healthy cattle at slaughter in the EU;
  • 84 cases of BSE were also found as a result of more than 150.000 tests carried out on cattle dead-on-farm, subject to casualty slaughter or which were found sick at ante-mortem inspection;
  • 3 cases were found as a result of the examination of the 20.800 cattle examined in the framework of BSE eradication;
  • Finally, 280 cases of BSE were found as a result of the examination of 1601 clinical suspect animals.

These results are still preliminary but it is clear that the likelihood of positive cases is greater when examining specific target populations, such as dead-on-farm animals and casualty slaughters. The number of cases found through examination of clinical suspect cases is also very significant.

This highlights that good veterinary surveillance remains perhaps the single most important method of detecting BSE. Yet the breakdown of figures by Member States still points to significant differences. Judging from the substantial number of BSE cases still being found in healthy slaughter cattle, some Member States are clearly more effective and efficient than others at detecting cases through surveillance of suspect animals.

There may be an argument that such surveillance is not necessary with the extensive testing programme in place. If so, it is a very dangerous argument which I reject outright. Good surveillance through the production process, from farm to abattoir, is essential. The system is only as strong as the weakest link.

If there are weaknesses in surveillance, it is hard to imagine that they are not also occurring in relation to even more important safeguard measures such as SRM removal and destruction. I would appeal to all Member States, therefore, to look closely at the figures on BSE cases and to critically review the full range of measures to detect cases. And especially the examination of suspect clinical cases.

The figures on BSE incidence allow an opportunity to consider if any change is appropriate to the age limits for testing. Jean Glavany has already stated his support for a reduction in the current age limit from 30 to 24 months. Germany already tests bovines to this lower limit.

France was the first Member State to introduce widespread testing for BSE. It also made the most rapid progress in putting a system in place to test all bovines aged over 30 months. It has also a very effective system of surveillance of clinical suspects – on which I have just spoken. I, therefore, take Jean’s views very seriously in this matter.

However, the figures to date do not support such a reduction at the Community level. Of the tests carried out to date on healthy animals aged over thirty months, the youngest case of BSE has been in an animal aged 42 months. [one in France, one in Spain] This is, obviously, 12 months above the current lower age limit of testing of 30 months.

There is therefore a very considerable margin of security to protect against the possibility of young animals with clinical signs of BSE from entering the food chain. This is, of course, in addition to the removal of SRMs which is and remains the single most important safeguard.

These figures are not surprising and are in line with the SSC's findings. We fully expected to find very, very few cases in young animals. However, in keeping with our precautionary approach towards BSE we opted for the present lower age limit of 30 months.

The other circumstance in which a lowering of the age might be warranted is in order to boost consumer confidence in the safety of beef. If that is the objective, I would favour a reduction in the age of testing to an even lower level – to 24, 18 or even 12 months. In order words while a reduction may not be necessary on public health grounds, it may help to boost confidence in the safety of beef.

The present system does, however, provide a very large measure of security. Nonetheless, I propose to keep the situation fully under review and have two proposals in mind in this respect:

  • First, I intend to propose to the SVC to reduce the age of testing of "at risk" animals from 30 months to 24 months (or even lower);
  • Second, the Commission will ask the Scientific Steering Committee to review the full epidemiological situation in the light of the hugely increased data now available.

The first of these proposals, testing of "at risk" animals at a younger age, will serve as an early warning system if there is indeed an emerging problem in relation to BSE in younger animals. The fact is that it is among "at risk" animals that the highest incidence of BSE is currently found.

The second proposal, referral to the SSC, will ensure that our system remains consistent with the best scientific advice. These combined measures will provide the necessary data to make an informed choice, in a next step, on lowering the age limit in general.

In the meantime I note the assurances from the German authorities that they are not taking any measures against imports from other Member States which do not test bovines aged from 24 to 30 months. Any such measures would of course be both unfair and discriminatory.

I now look forward to your views and would ask for a full and frank debate which will allow me to draw firm conclusions on where all Member States stand on these important issues. Let me emphasise that the Commission does not exclude any options. I will present the appropriate proposals to the SVC in the light of our discussions today.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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