The worsening of the BSE crisis in recent months prompts us to ask whether this was inevitable or whether the European Commission might have done more to avert it. There’s a general impression in the beef sector that the action plan announced by Brussels in December – an EU-wide ban on the use of meat and bone meal in animal feed and the exclusion of cattle carcasses more than 30 months old from the food chain – more or less meets the challenge. But shouldn’t this have come years ago?

The Commission is quick to put the blame on the Member States, and one does feel some sympathy. As far back as 1997 Brussels put forward a plan to bring in EU-wide rules covering the use of selected risk materials (SRMs) in animal feed but this came to nothing when France opposed it in the Council of Agriculture Ministers. Ironically the measure was only accepted late this year as a consequence of rising public concern over the safety of beef in France.

One of the charges laid against the Commission is that, unlike national food safety agencies, it does not have a dual role as both risk-assessor and risk-manager. The Commission relies on a slew of scientific committees in Brussels for risk assessment but its actual role is to manage the risk. “Independent scientific advisers give good expert advice but you need to be guided – not ruled – by science,” says Stephen Rossides, head of food, health and science at the UK’s National Farmers Union. “As a risk manager, the Commission might arguably have erred on the side of caution. It could have been more forceful and tried to face down the member states more than it did. Certainly one can’t blame the Commission for the BSE crisis but it could have done more to force the Member States to confront the issue rather than let them get away with the proposition that it was only a British problem,” Mr Rossides told

A brief chronology of the EU’s involvement shows graphically the extent to which BSE has been regarded as a purely British crisis until this autumn. The Commission’s first major intervention over BSE came in March 1996 when it imposed a ban on British exports of beef cattle and products. This was resented, and challenged, by the UK. The British government, backed by the National Farmers Union, brought an action in the European Court of Justice to have the ban overturned. It did not succeed.

At the EU summit in Florence in 1996 the UK agreed to a Commission scheme for the gradual lifting of the ban under five pre-conditions. These included a selective slaughter of ‘at risk’ animals and other measures to ensure the removal of specified risk materials from carcasses. That year, the Commission amended the ban to permit the export of bovine semen and to set conditions under which certain other by-products could be exported. In 1998 it acted to allow the export of beef and beef products from Northern Ireland and in August 1999, the ban was finally lifted from the rest of the UK, though not all of Britain’s EU partners shared the Commission’s faith in the safety measures taken by the UK authorities.

Germany maintained a national ban on British beef exports until March this year and France is still refusing to admit them. Although France was, and remains, clearly in violation of EU law the Commission was hesitant to take action until provoked into bringing a case after a storm of protest in Britain. Brussels eventually launched legal proceedings against France in November 1999.

Peter Scott, director of the British Meat Federation, accepts that proper BSE controls are now in place even if they are “horribly late,” but acknowledges the problem the Commission has had in responding to different conditions in each Member State. The Commission is reacting “appropriately,” he said, given that some Member States have no BSE problem and are naturally reluctant to take on serious and costly measures with no scientific evidence to support them.

Others have taken a more pragmatic stand. There is a far lower incidence of the disease in other countries than there has been in the UK, but a more serious problem of public confidence, he says. Scott added that the Commission would soon be faced by the necessity of calling for a cull of cattle throughout Europe. This would have major repercussions. It would mean that Europe would switch directly from exporting beef to importing it. “European beef will go short, we’ll have to buy in and it will become expensive. That’s good news for EU beef farmers, because their product will become highly valued,” he said.

Mr Scott said he had full confidence in the Commission. “The decision will be taken by the Council – if it were left to Commission alone I’d have more confidence,” he said. Ministers would have their national industries to think about and would be driven by political imperatives. “The Commission would take a honest decision.”

By Alan Osborn, correspondent has compiled a global calendar of events connected to the spread of BSE. To read this, click here.