In what some see as a long overdue move, the European Parliament has seized control of legislation to handle incidences of BSE and other animal diseases. explains what has changed, and brings you reactions from those affected by the news. Alan Osborn reports:

Elected politicians in the European Parliament are to have a greater say in how legislation to cope with BSE, scrapie and other animal diseases is drawn up and implemented in the 15 EU countries, a move that could have unpredictable consequences in this most sensitive area of EU food policy. Experts say this could mean tougher measures against scrapie in particular, including possibly the EU-wide introduction of whole flock slaughter, which has wide support in the Parliament.

The development follows approval by the Parliament of comprehensive regulation covering all TSE's, (Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathies), which is expected to come into force on 1 July. The measure has been pushed through by the European Commission in order to bring the 60 or so decisions it has made on BSE over the past ten years into a single comprehensive legal framework.

However, the proposed regulation also introduces a number of new instruments to manage the risk of BSE, scrapie and similar diseases. Until now the European Commission has been authorised by the EU Member States to push through its BSE measures on the basis of emergency safeguard legislation after consultation with the Standing Veterinary Committee. Under the new arrangements, the European Parliament will have more or less equal say with the member governments through the "co-decision" process. New elements in the proposed legislation will cover:

  • The procedure and criteria for classification of countries according to their BSE status based on international standards;

  • Fully harmonised measures for the eradication of BSE in cattle, sheep and goats and the creation of a legal base for eradication of scrapie or any other TSE currently subject to national legislation;

  • Rules for export of bovine animals and products derived from them similar to those that currently apply internally;

  • Obligations on Member States to set up contingency plans for eradication and control of TSEs.

David Byrne, the Commissioner for health and consumer protection, said the Commission has been forced to work with safeguard measures for far too long. "This regulation puts protective measures against BSE and other such types of diseases on the proper legal and institutional footing. It gives us the instruments we need for comprehensive risk management protecting both animal and human health. And it brings coherence between the rules inside the EU and those applicable to our trade with third countries - both imports and exports," he said.

In Britain, the EU country most affected by BSE, Stephen Rossides, head of food, health and science at the National Farmers Union, noted however that in earlier consideration of the measure in the European Parliament there had been a suggestion that all countries should adopt a "whole herd slaughter" policy when a single animal with BSE was detected. If that policy were introduced it could have implications for the UK but he doubted that this would happen, he said, because the UK control measures were fully backed by the Commission.

Tim Miles, veterinary manager at the UK's Meat and Livestock Commission, said the scrapie measures "might tighten up the conditions for the live export trade in cheese," adding that there was a possibility of whole flock slaughter of sheep if BSE were ever found. "But otherwise it won't impose any greater restriction in the UK. I think the impact is going to be felt more painfully in Europe than it is here," he warned.

In Brussels a spokesman for Franz Fischler, the agriculture commissioner, said that over the next two years or so the main effect would be to change the geographical BSE risk assessments in respect of non-EU countries. "There we want everybody to have the international standards set out in the BSE Code of the International Organisation for Animal Health - at present some have different categories," he said.

By Alan Osborn, correspondent