The first meeting of The National Health and Medical Research Council committee on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies will convene today (30 January) in Melbourne, and mad cow disease is firmly on the agenda.

Since the scope of BSE was uncovered in Europe last year, Australia has been acting  to prevent the spread of the disease to its domestic cattle, and lower risks of vCJD; the human brain wasting disease linked to the consumption BSE infected beef.

Australia is currently one of only five beef producing countries recognised as BSE-free by the EU, but increasing consumer fears over the disease have led to the creation of the committee to look at public health and safety. The committee’s main role is to develop strategies in preventing BSE  transmission, advising the federal government on what action should be taken.

Meanwhile, a consumer’s group warned yesterday that meat labels that do not display country of origin may be increasing the risk of vCJD among the public. The fear is that shoppers could not tell if  meat was produced domestically, or imported from the EU, despite the temporary ban instituted earlier this month. This is particularly the case where a product contains imported meat ingredients, such as pizza, while being produced locally.

Fears have also been raised recently that there is a “small but significant” risk that domestic farmers are still using livestock feed that is produced from cattle remains. The practise was banned in 1997.