Food Law News - UK - 2002

FSA News Release, 23 May 2002

BSE - BSE and sheep stakeholder's report opens to public consultation

The Food Standards Agency today published a report from the BSE and Sheep Stakeholders' Group. This sets out its recommendations to the FSA Board for new precautionary measures against the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep for consumers. Following public consultation, the report will be considered by the FSA Board in June 2002.

The Agency's advice to consumers remains the same based on current information. It is not advising against the consumption of lamb. This advice also applies to mutton and goat meat. The Agency is also continuing to advise that parents need not avoid UK lamb in baby food.

The group considered risk reduction measures that would be proportionate to what remains a theoretical risk. In reaching its recommendations the group took into account risk assessment models of how potential infectivity in sheep could be reduced. Against a background of scientific uncertainty the group recommended the following precautionary measures to the Agency:-

The Agency's Chairman, Sir John Krebs, said:
'Ongoing studies of the current sheep flock indicate that no sheep have tested positive for BSE. However, this is an evolving area of science, and there are considerable uncertainties. While no sheep alive today are likely to have been exposed to any original source of infectivity, the theoretical risk that BSE could be present in sheep by virtue of transmission, and masked by scrapie, remains. The Board of the Agency will examine this report very carefully in deciding what further measures are appropriate in dealing with the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep. We need to make proportionate choices in acting on what continues to be a precautionary basis. This report does not change the Agency's advice, which remains that we are not advising against the consumption of lamb and mutton.'

The report is published for public consultation. It will be considered along with responses by the Agency's Board at its meeting on 13th June 2002. A copy of the report has also been sent to the European Commission.

Background Notes

Up to 10,000 sheep a year in the UK are thought to develop scrapie. Sheep and goats identified with scrapie do not enter the food chain. Scrapie could be concealing BSE in sheep. It is not known how scrapie is spread in sheep but it is known to have been present for 250 years and spreads naturally between sheep. Sheep could have contracted BSE from infected animal feed in the 1990s. However, BSE has never been found to occur naturally in sheep.

The FSA announced at its Board meeting on 22 October 2001 that it planned to review existing precautionary measures against the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep. A public stakeholder meeting was held on 18 December 2001 where it was announced that a core stakeholder group would further consider the issue and put their findings to the FSA Board.

The level of predicted risk reduction represented by adding intestine to the list of specified risk material for sheep is dependent on how much potential infectivity is removed by processing when sausage skins are made. A risk assessment based on a 10 fold reduction of lymphoid material indicated a large reduction in potential risk, while assuming a 100 fold reduction gave a low risk reduction. It is currently not known how infectivity might be reduced by processing sausage casings to remove lymphoid tissue, but studies have shown that the prion protein persists in processed casings from scrapie infected animals.

The Agency has called for the current screening programme to be expanded, the National Scrapie Plan to be accelerated, and highlighted the urgent requirement to develop a rapid test to detect the possible presence of BSE in sheep. A European-wide TSE in sheep surveillance programme is now in place.

SRM controls are in place as a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of possible BSE-infected sheep meat from entering the food chain. SRM in sheep includes the skull, including the brain and eyes, tonsils and spinal cord of animals over 12 months old and the spleen of all sheep. These are EU wide measures.

The sausage casings industry estimate that up to 15% of sausages are in natural sheep casings mainly made of intestines from the UK sheep flock. Another 10-15% use pig casings. The remaining 70-75% of sausages sold are skinless or contained in synthetic casing. It is also estimated that around 14 million sheep casings are produced each year with 5 million (36%) used for UK domestic production and 9 million (64%) exported to Europe. Some of these casings would be reimported. The Meat and Livestock Commission estimates that the loss of sausage casings sales ex-abbatoir would be 6.5 million. Turnover in the casings processing sector is estimated at 24 million.

The Muslim community, though under 5% of the UK population, consumes around 20% of sheep meat, most of which is mutton. The MLC estimate that, based on 2000 sheep meat production figures, the Muslim population consumed 79,000 tonnes of meat, comprising 55,000 tonnes of mutton and 24,000 tonnes of lamb.

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