The European Commission is to introduce the slaughtering of over thirty-month cattle but with exceptions for older cattle that have been tested and shown to be BSE free. This follows an increase in the reported incidence of BSE in France and the first cases in Germany and Spain. The effectiveness of the scheme will depend on proper enforcement and testing across Europe.
The FSA view is that the current methods of testing have not been proven to fully detect sub-clinical BSE. Furthermore, the practicality of testing on a mass scale remains to be demonstrated.
On this basis the FSA is recommending that the UK retain its current rules which make it generally illegal for beef from cattle older than 30 months, including imports, to be sold for human consumption.
Christl Donnelly publishes a study in Nature today on the likely size of the BSE epidemic in France. Her study estimates that there is virtually no risk from French beef imported to Britain if the over thirty month controls are fully enforced. She says that even if the rules were only 75% enforced then the risks posed by British and French meat sold in the UK would be comparable. The FSA estimates that enforcement levels in the UK are currently at around 80%.
Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the FSA, said: "The latest evidence shows the importance of BSE controls and, in particular, the over thirty month rule for imports. It concludes that on current evidence the risk posed by British and French steaks sold in the UK are comparable. Retaining current BSE controls in the UK is a precautionary measure that will be reviewed in the light of the evidence derived from the new European testing system".
This latest study indicates that the risks in France of eating French beef are higher than is currently the case in the UK. The risk is comparable to the position in the UK a few years ago.
The FSA has been monitoring the incidence of BSE across Europe. The Agency is commissioning a risk assessment of beef from Ireland following an increase of incidence to 126 cases in the current year. This compares to 1190 in the UK and 126 in France. (Latest available figures)
Europe-wide controls to remove specified risk materials (SRM) were introduced on 1 October 2000. France has had SRM controls since 1996. The SRM controls and the over thirty month rule are the most important consumer protection controls in force. Experts estimate SRM controls remove 95% of the infectivity from cattle.