The Food Standards Agency is to start public consultation until the beginning of November on its draft report of BSE controls.

Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the Agency, said: " The protection of the public has been the guiding principle of this review. The evidence is that the current controls, which are based on a precautionary approach, are working. But, because of the high level of uncertainty, the review suggeststhat the current approach be retained in the immediate future subject toemerging scientific knowledge.

" In the light of the serious consequences of BSE for the human population it is right that this review is subject to extensive consultation and scrutiny before reaching its final recommendations."

The full report is available from www.bsereview.org.uk or from the Food Standards Helpline 0845 757 3012.

The main points of the report are:

Uncertainty

The draft review says that BSE, perhaps more than any other area of food safety, is characterised by scientific uncertainty.

This means that the risk management options for protecting the health of the public are precautionary in nature and are aimed at risk reduction in the light of current knowledge, and not total risk elimination.

Over Thirty Month Rule (OTMR)

Beef from cattle aged over thirty months at slaughter is banned from sale for human consumption in the UK. The rule is designed to reduce human exposure to the BSE agent.

Current effectiveness of BSE controls

No BSE cases in cattle aged 30 months or under have been diagnosed since 1997.

The Over Thirty Month Scheme (OTMS) is removing from the food chain at least 99.9% of cattle close to developing BSE.

Checks on farms show that there are passport discrepancies in about 10% of cattle inspected including documentation and poor record keeping.

The draft review proposes no relaxation or phasing out of the OTMR unless the BSE epidemic is declining as forecast and the number of BSE cases in cattle born after August 1 1996 confirms that the feed ban is effective.

There would also need to be evidence of comprehensive and reliable cattle identification procedures, covering all animals, that are robustly enforced and subject to independent evaluation.

The draft reports recommends a review in August 2001 of the effectiveness of tightened feed controls introduced in August 1996 and of BSE incidence. Subject to that review, the draft report suggests that the earliest date on which a decision to announce the year of birth of animals that need not enter OTMS could be taken would be January 2002 (this could not apply to animals born before August 1996).

Specified Risk Materials (SRM)

Controls on SRM are designed to prevent the parts of slaughtered animals most likely to contain the BSE agent from entering the food and animal feed chain.

The draft review currently makes no proposals for changing current rules on specified risk materials. The review accepted the views of SEAC on a relaxation in respect of intestine and thymus of cattle of six months old or under and heads of sheep and goats (but not skull, brain or eyes of sheep over 12 month old) being implemented by the European Union. This was on the basis that the benefit to UK citizens of introducing controls on SRM across the European Union outweighed any slight increase in risk that may arise from changes to the UK's existing controls.

Cattle

For cattle any future changes in SRM controls will depend on the achievement of low BSE status for the UK under international rules. The UK currently falls into the highest risk category of BSE with an incidence of more than 100 confirmed cases per million within the cattle population over 24 month of age.

Sheep and goats

BSE has never been found in the UK national flock. It has been transmitted experimentally to sheep.

If BSE were shown to be in the national flock, current SRM-type controls would not be adequate. Contingency planning to deal with such an eventuality is underway and is fully supported by the report.

A selective breeding programme using genetically resistant rams has been proposed to eliminate scrapie from the flock. This MAFF proposal is fully supported by the review. For sheep future changes in SRM controls will be affected by: any findings of BSE in the national sheep flock in which case controls would have to be tightened; scrapie resistance being bred into sheep, which could enable selectively applied controls to be introduced.

Feed Ban

The aim of the feed ban is to keep potentially infectious material out of feed for farmed livestock and so remove exposure to BSE.

The draft review sees no likelihood or scope for relaxing the ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants.

There is no public health reason for banning what are called downstream products of rendering. These products include tallow when it is treated and then used in the production of car tyres, paint and plastics. However, this would require agreement in Brussels.

Mechanically recovered meat (MRM)

MRM is a product obtained by recovering raw meat from bones under high pressure after boning is completed and was used in cheaper burgers, sausages, pies and mince.

Since vCJD in humans may have been caused by consumption of BSE-infected cheaper beef products containing MRM the panel sees no scope for any relaxation in the MRM rules.

Imports

The draft review suggests that the problems of cross-contamination of animal feed formerly found in the UK may be occurring in other countries, possibly with similar results. The EU Commission is urged to take action on problems of cross-contamination, especially in countries with a known risk of BSE.

EU-wide SRM regulations are welcomed as is the requirement for Third Countries to comply with the rules from April 2001.

Research

The review says that more research is needed to:

  • provide urgently diagnostic tests for:


    • establishing herd and flock freedom from infection and for screening live animals before slaughter,

      screening live animals before slaughter,

      rapid screening of carcasses in abattoirs,

      the rapid differentiation of BSE and scrapie strains.

  • confirm that the enhanced feeding ban has been effective by undertaking proactive surveillance for BSE in cattle born after the ban was introduced in 1996.


  • Provide better methods for screening concentrate feed for mammalian protein, and for differentiating species of protein to enable more effective policing of the ban.
The human and financial cost

By September 2000 there were 82 definite and probable cases of vCJD of which 8 were still alive and 5 awaited confirmation. The most recent published estimate of the likely size of the vCJD epidemic suggests that the final number of people affected will be at most 136,000. However, the review cautions against a specific number because of the uncertainties surrounding the disease and says that the final number might lie between a few hundred and well over a hundred thousand.

The direct financial costs are:
  • In excess of £140 million in research costs since 1986.


  • Since 1996 - 4.5 million cattle slaughtered and £1.4 billion paid in compensation.


  • Cost of disposal of carcasses - £575 million in total since 1996.


  • The costs of the controls are now running at £454 million annually
Consultation

The review, called for by the Prime Minister at a farm summit in March this year, will now go to a series of consultation meetings until the beginning of November.

The draft report, published on a new, dedicated web site (www.bsereview.org.uk), will go to a specially convened group of stakeholders - representatives from consumer, farming, meat industry, medical and scientific organisations as well as Government departments - on Thursday in London. People without access to the Internet can ring 0845 757 3012 and ask for a printed copy of the draft report and/or put their names down for the consultation meetings.

A public meeting in York on 9th October will also consider the findings before the review returns to the stakeholders and a final meeting of the FSA Board on 9th November.

The review will then be presented to Government Ministers and published simultaneously.

This is part of a new approach to public accountability by the FSA that will see all meetings on the draft report held in public.

European Union issues

All three main controls are covered by the Florence Agreement of June 1996 which set the framework for the eventual lifting of the ban on export of British beef. Any changes will have to be agreed by other EU Member States.

The report proposes that the controls review conclusions should be drawn to the attention of the Commission and the relevant authorities in other Member States.

Press Office details and contact:
Office hours: 0207 972 2444
Out of hours pager: 07669 - 074642