Food Law News - UK - 2003

FSA Press Release (R726 - 39), 7 July 2003

BSE - FSA Board to consider replacing OTM rule with BSE testing of cattle

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) board will consider recommendations to replace the over thirty months (OTM) rule with BSE testing at its meeting on Thursday (10 July 2003). The OTM rule, one of the three main BSE control measures, does not allow cattle over 30 months to enter the food chain. BSE testing has been evaluated and is used throughout the European Union.

Changes are being considered because of the continual and steep decline of BSE in the UK over the last 10 years and the effectiveness of other BSE controls. The main BSE control measures are the Specified Risk Material (SRM) controls, which remove over 99% of BSE infectivity that may be present in cattle. The third measure is the ban on feeding meat and bone meal to farm animals.

The FSA began a review of the OTM rule in July 2002 by setting up a stakeholder group whose recommendations were considered at a public meeting in March 2003 and whose final report has been subject to a three-month consultation throughout the UK.

The difference in risk to public health between the OTM rule and the testing of all cattle was recognised by the stakeholder group as very small, but the costs of the OTM scheme are very large. Based on the most realistic estimates, any of the possible changes could mean less than one additional vCJD case over the next sixty years. The worst case could be about two and a half additional cases over the next sixty years. The OTM costs £360m a year, compared to around £60m a year for the proposed replacement.

The risk assessments, directed and peer-reviewed by a joint FSA and SEAC (Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee) group, are available on the Agency website.

The stakeholder group recommended two options to take effect from January 2004:

The Agency Board will consider proposals that take into account practical issues raised during the consultation and that recommend replacing the OTM rule with testing in two stages.

Under the proposals OTM cattle born after 1996 would be allowed into the food chain, after being tested for BSE, from January 2004 but complete replacement of the rule would not take place until July 2005.

The risk assessments have taken a pessimistic assumption that human exposure to BSE to date could result in 5000 cases of variant CJD in the UK over the next 60 years. Based on this, the most realistic estimate was that the changes could mean 0.04 additional variant CJD cases in the UK over 60 years. Because of the assumptions made in the modelling, there is a 40-fold range of uncertainty. Therefore the estimate range would be between 0.002 to a worst case of 2.5 additional cases. This modelling includes casualty animals entering the food chain after being tested for BSE. Using the most realistic estimates, excluding casualty animals from the food supply would make a very marginal difference to vCJD risk, but add in the region of £300 million to costs over the next six years.

The core stakeholder group said that, whatever option is adopted, there should not be an unacceptable difference in risk between imported and home-produced beef. A risk assessment for Irish beef has now been carried out, which shows that, if the OTM rule were removed, there would be no greater risk from imported beef than from UK beef.

Sir John Krebs, Chair of the Food Standards Agency, said:

'Variant CJD is a terrible disease and in reviewing the controls the Agency has to ensure that public health is effectively protected. With the continual and steep decline of BSE in the UK the Agency has undertaken a major public review of replacing the over thirty month rule with BSE testing, underpinned by a thorough, science-based risk assessment. The Board will discuss what are the most appropriate measures to recommend to Ministers to protect public health based on the current and estimated future risks.'

' I would like to thank the members of the stakeholder group for their contributions over many months and those that have contributed during the public consultation.'

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