Frequently asked questions about BSE

April 7, 2001 European Commission


Brussels, 6 April 2001

What is the current state of play on BSE in the EU?

The overall incidence of BSE in the European Union is falling, led by the improvement in the situation in the UK where over 99% of all cases to date have been registered. However, the incidence is rising in some Member States, notably due to the introduction of more systematic testing on a compulsory basis as of 1 January 2001.

There is an extensive range of Community measures in place to protect the public against the risks from BSE. Member States must ensure full implementation of all Community measures relating to BSE. They must also improve their communication efforts to the public on BSE and on the protective measures in place. If these measures are strictly implemented, consumers can have confidence in the safety of beef.

Key European Commission food safety proposals currently before the Council and European Parliament aim to further strengthen food safety legislation in general for example the proposal for a general food law and establishing a European Food Authority, as well as legislation to manage the risk of BSE, such as the proposal for a Regulation on Animal by-Products, and the proposal for a Regulation on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies.

What is the origin of BSE and what is its incidence in the EU?

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease of the brain in cattle. It was first diagnosed in the UK in 1986. It reached epidemic proportions due to the inclusion in cattle feed of meat and bone meal produced from animal carcasses. Up to 28 February 2001, there have been 180,903 cases in the UK and 1,924 cases elsewhere in the European Union. While the incidence of BSE has been decreasing in the UK, it is actually rising in a number of other Member States as a result of the introduction of more systematic testing for BSE. Nonetheless the total number of BSE cases remains extremely low in other Member States in comparison with the UK.

What about its human equivalent vCJD?

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD) was first diagnosed in 1996. It is now generally assumed to be caused by the transmission of BSE to humans. There are 99 confirmed or suspected cases in the EU to date, mostly in young people. All cases have occurred in the UK with the exception of France (3) and Ireland (1)).

Estimates of the future number of vCJD cases vary widely as too little is known about the incubation period between exposure to the infective agent and the emergence of symptoms. However, it is clear that future cases will be overwhelmingly due to past exposure to infective material before the strengthening of controls in recent years.

What is the incidence of BSE by Member State?

Currently, the overall BSE incidence in the Community is falling, mainly as a result of the decline in BSE cases as observed in the UK. In Great Britain the incidence has fallen sharply from over 36.000 cases in 1992 at the peak of the epidemic to 1348 in 2000. The BSE incidence trend is stable in Portugal, where 159 cases were recorded in 1999 compared to 150 cases in 2000.

The number of detected BSE cases has on the other hand shown an increase in other Member States, such as France (31 cases in 1999, 162 in 2000) and in Ireland (95 cases in 1999, 149 in 2000) as a result of reinforced surveillance programmes. The introduction of active surveillance in Germany, Spain and Italy in December 2000 also led to the discovery of the first ever 'native' BSE cases in those Member States.

What are the results of the new testing programmes since 1 January 2001?

In addition to the compulsory examination of all animals showing signs suggestive of BSE, rapid post mortem testing for BSE must, as of 1 January 2001, be carried out on:

- all cattle over 30 months of age slaughtered as emergencies or showing signs of any kind of illness at the ante mortem inspection in the slaughterhouse;

- a random sample of cattle that have died on the farm;

- healthy animals over 30 months destined for human consumption (with the exception of Austria, Sweden and Finland, where a scientific assessment shows that the risk of BSE is lower).

As expected, this more systematic testing has resulted in an increase in the number of detected BSE cases in most Member States but it is notable that most cases 85% - are still detected through surveillance of suspect or at risk animals. A table showing the results is enclosed. These results are still preliminary, but they confirm the Commission's initial hypothesis that systematic testing would reveal more BSE cases than passive surveillance alone, and that the likelihood to find positive cases is greater when examining specific target populations, such as dead-on-farm animals and casualty slaughters. A more in-depth analysis can be made when more results become available.

When will the testing of all bovine animals over 30 months become obligatory throughout the EU ?

At present, all bovines aged over 30 months destined for human consumption are tested. By 1 June 2001, the Commission is due to submit a proposal to the Standing Veterinary Committee with a view, if appropriate, to modify the present BSE testing program. This proposal will take into account the results of the testing obtained from compulsory testing.

What is the expected future evolution of the disease?

Up until the middle of 2000, the majority of BSE cases detected were found by means of traditional passive surveillance, i.e. through the examination and mandatory reporting of animals suspected of showing signs or clinical symptoms of BSE. Since rapid post mortem testing started, it has become evident that additional cases can be picked up by testing. Thus animals with non-typical signs, such as kicking, lameness, loss of weight and reduced milk yield will not escape detection. Such conditions are so common that it would not be practicable to treat all those animals as BSE suspects. BSE cases have also been found in slaughtered animals without any previous signs of illness.

For the above reasons it was expected that systematic rapid test monitoring would increase the number of detected BSE cases and the early results confirm this assumption. To date, such testing has accounted for 15% of BSE cases.

On the other hand, the age structure of the positive BSE cases is shifting towards older animals in those Member States, where BSE has been reported in previous years. This is a positive signal as it shows that the measures taken from 1996 onwards are having some effect.

Since the average incubation period of BSE is 4-5 years, the effect of the newly introduced measures over the past months will only be seen in 2005-2006.

What has the EU done to protect the public?

The European Commission has put in place a comprehensive set of Community measures in relation to BSE:

- a ban on the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal (MBM) to cattle, sheep and goats, as of July 1994;

- higher processing standards for the treatment of animal waste (133 degrees, 3 bars of pressure for twenty minutes) to reduce infectivity to a minimum, as of 1 April 1997;

- surveillance measures for the detection, control and eradication of BSE, as of 1 May 1998;

- the requirement to remove specified risk materials (SRMs like spinal cord, brain, eyes, tonsils, parts of the intestines) from cattle, sheep and goats throughout the EU from 1 October 2000 from the human and animal food chains. The obligation is also mandatory for imports of meat and meat products from third countries into the EU except Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Namibia, Nicaragua, Norway, New Zealand, Paraguay, Singapore, Swaziland and Uruguay since 1 April 2001;

- the introduction of targeted testing for BSE, with a focus on high risk animal categories, from 1 January 2001;

- the prohibition to use dead animals not fit for human consumption in feed production from 1 March 2001 onwards.

In response to the crisis in consumer confidence that followed the introduction of the rapid BSE tests, and the confirmation of the first native cases in countries that had not yet detected BSE cases until then, and following more recent scientific advice, the Commission has taken a series of additional measures:

- a ban on the use of ruminant meat and bone meal and certain other animal proteins in feedstuffs for all farm animals, to avoid risks of cross-contamination, at least until end of June 2001;

- the testing of all cattle aged over 30 months destined for human consumption;

- the extension of the list of specified risk materials to include the entire intestine of bovines and the vertebral column;

- a ban on the use of mechanically recovered meat derived from bones of cattle, sheep and goats in feed and food.

A proposal to tighten-up treatment standards for ruminant fats is expected after the relevant scientific advice will have been updated.

All Community measures are based on the opinions of the independent scientific committees advising the European Commission. New scientific evidence is regularly reviewed by the EU Scientific Steering Committee and other specialised scientific committees.

What does the Commission do to check the implementation of BSE measures by the Member States?

The Commission's Food and Veterinary Office carries out inspections to verify the correct implementation, enforcement and controls of Community legislation by the competent national authorities Its inspection reports are published on the Commission's website at :

The FVO inspections have been stepped up and particular attention is given to a correct implementation of the feed ban and the recently adopted measures on SRMs and testing.

What other measures are proposed to protect the public from BSE?

In addition to the measures outlined above, a number of other important Commission proposals are currently under examination for adoption by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament:

- A proposal for a Regulation on the prevention, eradication and control of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs).

- A proposal for a Regulation on Animal By-products which will ensure that only material from animals fit for human consumption can be used in animal feed.

- A proposal for a general food law and establishing a European Food Safety Authority.

The European Commission has in the White Paper on Food Safety (see IP/00/20) set out a comprehensive range of proposals aimed at ensuring that food is safe from the farm to the table.

What is being done to tackle the risk of BSE cases entering the food chain?

All bovine animals over 30 months of age entering the food chain must be tested for BSE and the carcass may not be released before a negative test results has been obtained. Austria, Finland and Sweden may derogate from the requirement to test healthy cattle pursuant to a scientific assessment showing that the BSE risk in those Member States is lower.

specified risk materials (SRMs) are removed at slaughter from all cattle aged over 12 months and destroyed. This reduces the level of potential exposure from animals which might be in the early stages of the disease to an extremely low level.


BSE testing - Cumulative table from January - February 2001

Suspects: Cattle which are identified as suspect case through passive surveillance.

Risk Animals : Cattle which die on a farm, are slaughtered in an emergency or are sent for normal slaughter but are found sick in the pre-slaughter inspection.

Healthy Animals : Cattle sent for normal slaughter.

BSE Eradication : Cattle which are killed because they are epidemiologically linked to a BSE case (birth cohorts, rearing cohorts, feed cohorts, offspring and animals from herds with BSE) in their herd.

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