The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has raised concerns that meat from Zimbabwean, South African and Polish cattle over 30 months old may pose a slightly higher BSE risk than other legally sold imported beef.

Although the amount of beef imported from these countries is very low and the specified risk controls apply, major retailers are already acting to protect the public following discussions with the FSA.

Poland, Zimbabwe and South Africa, along with 11 other countries, are exempt from the UK's Over Thirty-Month rule (OTM), which applies to imported and home produced beef. The rule was introduced in 1996 to reduce the risk of BSE infectivity entering the food chain. The FSA announced on 7 May that it is to review the OTM controls. In addition, the EU has introduced new rules to combat BSE whereby animals over 30 months have to be tested before they can enter the food chain.

The European Commission (EC) has classified Poland as likely to present a BSE risk, and the first case of BSE in Poland was confirmed on 2 May 2002. Eleven of the exempt countries, according to EC classification, are highly unlikely to present a BSE risk or to have a risk which is classified as unlikely but which cannot be excluded. No risk assessments have been carried out in South Africa or Zimbabwe.

Specified risk controls, which remove 95% of any infectivity that may be present, apply to all home produced and imported beef. UK imported beef is inspected to apply these controls.

There have been no imports of beef from Zimbabwe since August 2001, because of foot and mouth restrictions. The latest UK trade statistics for 2001 indicate that there were 41 tonnes of beef imported from Poland and 29 tonnes from South Africa. It is not possible to establish how much of this beef is over thirty months. Some Polish beef is known to have been imported into the UK from elsewhere in the community. Total UK consumption of beef in 2001 was approximately 1.049 million tonnes.

The FSA is asking the EC to expedite risk assessments for Zimbabwe and South Africa. It is also raising its concerns about Polish BSE controls with the EC.