Concerns over BSE have loomed large in EU agricultural policy over the last decade, but much research has been at national level. Brussels has taken stock of the various research being carried out across the EU and published an inventory – Keith Nuthall has read the small print.

Brussels is always looking for big ideas by which it can justify its existence to a doubting public and one of the latest of these is the concept of a European Research Area. This idea is that Europe – with its patchwork of nations and national research units – should coordinate its academics and researchers, making sure that they do not duplicate their efforts.

It is because of this that the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research recently decided to draw up an inventory of research being carried out across the European Union on BSE, CJD and related diseases. This 245-page tome has now been published and it makes interesting, if sometimes a little worrying, reading.

The Commission highlighted areas where better coordination between national research teams was required. These included increased coordination, for instance improved epidemiological surveillance, inventory and sharing of animal models and cell lines, collection and provision of well-characterised samples, quality assurance for the validation of diagnostics tests, best practices in abattoir techniques and waste disposal.

Its detailing of new research also showed that there are still large areas of doubt regarding the risks posed by BSE. A priority for research by Britain’s Food Standards Agency, for instance, include studies to establish whether the BSE prion is present in the milk of BSE infected dairy cows.

Lack of coordination a weakness

Releasing the inventory, EU research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: “TSE [Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies] is a complex disease and much research is still needed to better understand it. The exercise we just completed showed once again that a lack of coordinated action in research is one of Europe’s main weaknesses.” Unsurprisingly, the overwhelmingly largest proportion of research on BSE has been carried out in the UK, where the disease first arose. The report noted that by the end of the 1999/2000 financial year, Whitehall [central administration of the British government] had spent more than £140m (US$198m) on research into TSE’s affect on animals and humans. Said the inventory: “This is a large programme, which has developed progressively since the beginning of the BSE epidemic in cattle. It is designed to provide a better understanding of prion disease.”

Current studies that were launched by MAFF before its abolition include the question of whether scrapie can be transmitted via embryos, with 50 unborn lambs from scrapie infected ewes being transferred into some healthy sheep. Another relatively new study, using mice, is checking whether the infectivity of sheep BSE tissue has been underestimated.

Meanwhile, the new FSA has also been developing its own research priorities. In a paper submitted to Brussels, it is clear that sheep infection is also a priority here, with “risk assessment on BSE in sheep” being top of its wish list.

Some other EU countries that have been affected by BSE have accorded a lower priority to research, with Portugal, for instance, failing to carry out any basic or experimental research on TSEs, despite having had 509 cases by mid February 2001. Also, Belgium, (17 cases by February), says the report has, until recently, “not really supported nor stimulated research on TSE.” Ireland, (587 cases by February), has had a reasonably comprehensive programme of research, with new studies looking into whether black face mountain sheep are resistant to scrapie, for instance. France, (245 cases) and Germany, (35), have also instituted sizeable research programmes. The only country to have done no work at all on the subject is tiny Luxembourg, which has had one isolated case.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s own Joint Research Centre has also been involved in BSE research, namely on developing reliable infection tests and also on quality controls for animal feed and the detection of risk material. This work has been successful and has had an impact on policy. Developed tests on brain or spinal cord samples of dead animals, claimed the report, were “extraordinarily reliable,” and led to the institution of the compulsory EU-wide post-mortem monitoring programme.

The need for international work on BSE has also been highlighted recently at a conference staged in Paris by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the Office International d’Epizooties.

Debates focused on the risk in countries that imported sizeable quantities of meat and bone meal from western Europe during and since the 1980s, namely those in eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. “BSE may still be undetected in countries outside western Europe which imported contaminated feed or cattle in the 1980’s and 90’s and do not have effective surveillance and risk management in place,” said FAO Senior Officer Andrew Speedy. “But if countries take the necessary steps, consumers can be reassured that the beef they eat is safe.”

*The EU inventory can be downloaded from the Internet from

By Keith Nuthall, correspondent

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Meat Hygiene – New Edition

Foodborne Diseases