Mr Chairman, Members of Parliament
I am very pleased of the opportunity to discuss latest developments in relation to BSE with Parliament. This is the fourth occasion in a matter of only two months on which I have had such an opportunity. The Commission's approach towards the crisis continues to be strongly determined by your views and I will ensure that this remains the case.
Clearly, recent events are cause for great concern. The recent resignation in Germany of the Ministers for Health and for Agriculture is the latest example of the gravity of the situation. The situation on the markets, on which Franz Fischler has just spoken, is also extremely serious.
You will recall from my last meeting before this Committee before Christmas that a number of important new measures were to come into effect on 1 January at the Commission's initiative. I am speaking in particular of the ban on meat and bone meal and the testing of all cattle aged over 30 months.
These are very far reaching decisions which place huge cost and administrative burdens on the Member States. However, they are the very minimum necessary to begin the process of re-building consumer confidence in the safety of beef. There is a consensus in this respect in all three Community institutions.
I took the precaution of writing to all Member States on 4 January requesting confirmation of their strict implementation of the full range of Community measures on BSE, including these new measures. Normally, the Commission would allow Member States some time to get on with the implementation of such measures. However, we do not have this luxury in the present circumstances.
A comprehensive questionnaire was also issued to Member States on their implementation of Community measures. The replies to this questionnaire are being discussed, as we speak, in the Standing Veterinary Committee. They will also be discussed at the meeting of the Chief Veterinary Officers which is taking place in Sweden this week.
My intention is to identify any weaknesses in the implementation of these measures so that they can be immediately addressed. A clear lesson from the past is that there must be no complacency. Community measures, of their own, are not sufficient to eradicate BSE. They must be strictly implemented.
A number of other developments will also influence events. The introduction of testing for BSE from 1 January of all animals aged over 30 months will provide a fuller picture of the true extent and distribution of the disease.
These tests have already confirmed in a matter of weeks that several Member States were dangerously complacent in their past insistence that they were BSE-free. It is especially disturbing that BSE is being detected in animals aged under 30 months.
Clearly it points to the exposure of the animals concerned to BSE, almost certainly through contaminated meat and bone meal. Given that there is a Community measure in place, since 1994, which bans the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meat to ruminants this should not have happened. Serious questions need to be answered in this respect.
The discovery of BSE in such young animals also raises the question of whether the age limit for testing for BSE should be reduced from the current requirement of 30 months. While it remains the case that cases of BSE are overwhelmingly in older animals (over 99% of cases are over 30 months) we must aim to ensure that as few infected animals as possible enter the food chain. It is certainly necessary in Member States where there are weaknesses in the past implementation of the ban on meat and bone meal.
Clearly, the results of tests over the next few weeks will be crucial in revealing the extent of BSE. You will have noted, for example, that the German authorities now predict that there could be up to 500 cases this year. I hope that this will prove to be a over-cautious estimate.
In addition, the Scientific Steering Committee has continued its evaluation of the range of national measures introduced to tackle the disease. At its meeting on 12 January, it adopted an opinion on a range of BSE issues which have important implications. In particular, its opinion will require a review of the current measures relating to mechanically recovered meat, specified risk materials and the use in animalfeeds of animal fats.
The Commission, in its risk management role, will have to respond to this opinion in a manner which is both responsible and proportionate. In the present circumstances, this is not an easy task. I am urgently reviewing our options in this respect.
My preliminary view is that the case for further measures in relation to mechanically recovered meat is very strong. I recall from my most recent appearance before the Environment Committee that this is a view also held by some Members of Parliament. Similarly, the views of the SSC that further safeguards are appropriate in relation to the use of animal fats in animalfeed must be taken very seriously.
The opinion in relation to the use of vertebral column is more problematic. There is a clear orientation from the SSC, for example, that vertebral column should be considered as a risk material where there are question marks over the effectiveness of the ban on meat and bone meal.
The performance of Member States in applying this ban varies very considerably. Where there is evidence that the ban was not effective, clearly the case for a ban on vertebral column is compelling. I am determined to come forward with a proposal within the next week which will aim for a very high level of protection from the associated risk.
The views of Parliament today and of the Agriculture Council next Monday will clearly be decisive in deciding the appropriate response. I look forward to your views, therefore, in this respect.
This is just a very brief outline of the situation as it concerns my direct responsibilities. However, we are all affected, directly or indirectly by the crisis. Franz, in particular, will be aware of the renewed calls for reform of the CAP.
At the Commission's initiative, there will be a discussion in the Agriculture Council on 29 January on the current situation focusing on the issues I have outlined above. The Commission, for its part, will continue to insist that there should full compliance with the Community measures in place. I remain of the view that the current crisis has its origins not in a lack of measures but in their poor implementation.
Clearly, it will be a slow and difficult process to re-establish consumer confidence in the safety of beef and beef products. The reality is that confidence has been so badly damaged that we have no option but to pursue a highly precautionary approach. It is, of course, highly regrettable that we have arrived at such a situation.
But, consumers feel left down. They were told again and again that beef was safe, that all the necessary measures to prevent the transmission of BSE were being taken and that they had nothing to fear. Too often, these re-assurances were wrong and are now revealed as dangerous complacency.
The Commission, for its part, has always insisted that Community measures, of their own, are not sufficient to eradicate BSE. They must be strictly implemented. I will not claim any special credit for such an elementary conclusion. Instead, it was a hard lesson that the Commission learned from its own past mistakes in the handling of BSE and from Parliament's hard-hitting report on these mistakes.
Needless to say, I will keep you all fully informed of developments.