Food Law News - UK - 2002

FSA News Item, 24 June 2002

BSE - Agency takes further precautionary measures on risk of BSE in sheep

The Food Standards Agency has recommended to the European Commission that sheep intestine should be banned from food use on a Europe-wide basis as a precautionary measure against the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep.

The Agency takes the view that although this is a theoretical risk it has to be considered in the context of the possible human health impact of vCJD should BSE be present in sheep. The proposed ban, added to the current controls, could reduce potential infectivity entering the food chain by up to two-thirds if BSE were to be found in sheep. Current precautionary measures are estimated to reduce risk by very approximately one-third.

The measure is subject to EU-wide agreement. Until such a decision is taken, it remains legal to buy and sell natural lamb sausage casings.

Most sausages in the UK use artificial casings. About 15% of the sausages sold use sheep intestine and they are usually sold at higher prices than sausages using artificial casings. Alternative natural or artificial casings are available should sheep casings be banned.

The Agency has accepted the current risk assessment that, were BSE to be found in sheep, infectivity would be greater in mutton, the intestine and lymph nodes. The Agency accepted that banning intestine was practical and proportionate to the risk and the removal of lymph nodes was rejected as being too costly and difficult to achieve.

The Agency has agreed to take forward further measures to protect and inform consumers about the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep. These include:

There is a theoretical risk of BSE in sheep because:

Although BSE has never been found in the UK sheep flock, only a small number of scrapie affected sheep - some 200 - have been tested with the most effective test available.

Sir John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said:
'The Board has looked carefully at the issues involved, which are surrounded by considerable scientific uncertainty. When considering measures to protect the public against the appalling consequences of vCJD, the Board felt it was right to recommend practical and proportionate measures that could significantly reduce the risk, even though it remains a theoretical one. We have deliberately taken a precautionary approach. We are not advising against the consumption of sheepmeat. Until, and unless there is European agreement, buying and selling sausage casings made from sheep intestine remains legal. However, consumers have a right to know that, if BSE were present in sheep, their risk could be significantly reduced by avoiding sausages made with natural lamb casings and avoiding mutton.'

Pre-packed sausages should be labelled with a description of the sausage skin and consumers can ask their butchers if they are buying loose sausages. Lamb and mutton should always be labelled if sold pre-packed or loose.

There is no requirement for caterers to label sausage skins, or declare whether meat is lamb or mutton.

The following additional notes are provided:

The Agency 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 BSE and Sheep Stakeholder Report was published on 23rd May 2002 for public consultation.

The report and responses from the public consultation were considered by the FSA Board at its open meeting on 13th June 2002. The Board agreed to accept the recommendations in the Report.

The parts of sheep currently specified as specified risk material (SRM) under EU legislation are:

In a paper presented to the core stakeholder group, the Meat and Livestock Commission estimated that the loss of natural sheep sausage casings sales ex-abbatoir would be 6.5 million per year. The full Report, Q&A, risk assessments and Board Paper can be found on the Agency's website at

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