Successful EU response to BSE

February 5, 2012 By

By: Arwen Brooks – Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs Assistant
February 6, 2012

BSE – a crisis in Europe and worldwide

In the past two decades, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle has evolved from a European concern to a global crisis that threatens both animal health and food safety, with detrimental effects to the trade and export of animals and animal-derived products.

The origins of BSE have yet to be determined, although research suggests that it may have been transferred to cattle in feed prepared from BSE-infected animal tissue, especially the use of the brain and spinal cord. The cause of BSE was found to be a small, misfolded protein, called a prion, which has the ability to induce healthy proteins in an organism to convert to the misfolded form, propagating the infection. Human have also been shown to be susceptible to this infection via the consumption of contaminated meat, causing variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Both BSE and vCJD belong to a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs).

In response to the epidemic in the European Union (EU), which confirmed over 185,000 cases of BSE, the European Union implemented a new, comprehensive regulatory framework to improve EU food safety. This also helped to restore faith in the EU food supply by providing additional and higher levels of consumer protection. These measures included creating a functional separation between risk assessment and risk management, resulting in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) serving as the keystone of EU risk assessment and communication.

EFSA has provided a large body of scientific advice to risk managers on the risks of BSE and other TSEs as well as on the impact of control measures put in place in the EU.

EFSA’s achievements in this area include:

  • Reviews of the EU TSE monitoring programmes in cattle, sheep and goats;
  • Evaluations of the TSE risks associated with certain animal tissues (specified risk material);
  • Assessments of the BSE risks associated with the use of animal proteins in animal feed;
  • Evaluations of diagnostic tests used in the EU to detect BSE/TSE in ruminants;
  • Assessment of the TSE infectivity including BSE in tissues and milk from small ruminants’ and in goat meat;
  • Assessments of the geographical BSE risk of countries (since 2007, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) carries out this task).

The efficacy of these safety measures have proven successful, by both reducing the frequency of disease as well as in restoring consumer confidence in EU food. In 2010, only 44 cases had been reported in livestock, while humans also demonstrated a drastic drop in vCJD, currently averaging around one diagnosis per year.

The EU has aimed to create rules to ensure the prevention, control and eradication of BSE, with measures that include an EU-wide total ban on the feeding of animal proteins to farmed animals, the removal of potentially BSE-contaminated animal tissues from the food chain and a comprehensive disease monitoring system. EFSA will be continuing to provide independent scientific advice to assist EU decision makers in managing risks associated with BSE.

EFSA continues to monitor the BSE situation closely as part of its long-term risk assessment efforts, taking into account new scientific knowledge and the most recent monitoring data on BSE.

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