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EU considers lifting ban on UK cattle and beef

BSE: Prospects for lifting current restrictions on the trade of cattle and beef from the UK

What is the UK embargo?

A total ban on the export of live cattle and all cattle products from the UK was introduced at EU level in March 1996 as a result of the BSE crisis, which affected the UK to a much larger extent than the other EU Member States. The first restrictions were put in place already in 1989, prohibiting the export of certain live cattle from the UK.

Several schemes were created to make it possible for the UK to continue to trade some beef, but this trade has been very limited. The Date Based Export Scheme (DBES) for England, Scotland and Wales and the ECHS (Export Certified Herd Scheme) for Northern Ireland make it possible to sell meat, subject to very strict conditions, from animals between the age of 6 and 9 months (since BSE has only been found in older animals). There is also a scheme by which meat can be exported from another EU country to the UK for processing, after which it can be re-exported from the UK (for example a British company can make sausages with Belgian meat and then export them.)

Why are the UK BSE measures different than in the rest of the EU?

In order to manage its specific BSE situation, the national measures against BSE in the UK have been different than the EU-wide measures in place in the other EU Member States. As the BSE situation in the UK has gradually improved, these measures are now gradually being brought into line with the EU rules. For example, the UK put in place the Over Thirty Months (OTM) rule to ensure that no animal older than 30 months could enter the food chain (since older animals are at higher risk of and having developed BSE). As of 7 November 2005, the OTM rule is being replaced by the testing system used in the other EU Member States, which means that older animals can enter the food chain, subject to a rigorous BSE testing scheme. The one remaining difference for the UK compared to the other Member States is that all animals born before 1 August 1996 in the UK are permanently excluded from the food and feed chain. This means that at the end of their productive life (eg producing milk), these animals must be destroyed. Animals born in the UK after 1 August 1996 are considered to be at no higher risk of developing BSE than animals in other EU countries.

Does the testing of older animals for BSE ensure consumer protection?

The main method of consumer protection is the removal of specified risk material (SRM) like the brain, tonsils and spinal cord from every animal slaughtered. The SRM have been defined in EU legislation and they have been shown to harbour almost all BSE infectivity, if any is present.

The removal of SRM is obligatory in the EU since 1 October 2000. As additional protection for consumers, all animals above 30 months that are slaughtered for human consumption are tested for the presence of a misshaped prion protein called PrPres, which is regarded as a marker for the presence of BSE. The BSE post-mortem rapid tests operate by detecting PrPres in the central nervous system. Following slaughter, a sample of brain or spinal cord is taken from the animal using a special tool. This tissue is taken to the laboratory and tested for the presence of PrPres. Rapid tests are quick and reliable, and allow large numbers of samples to be tested. Routine testing can detect animals presented for slaughter which may have unnoticed signs of BSE and also animals with the disease which are not yet showing signs. Infectivity has not been shown in animals that are in the early stages of the disease, so the identification and removal of these animals provides additional protection for the consumer.

What is the current BSE situation in the UK?

The incidence of BSE in the UK has fallen sharply from a peak of 37,280 cases in 1992 to 343 in 2004, the majority of which were born before 1996. The “total feed ban”, which banned the feeding of processed animal protein to farmed animals, is considered effective in the UK as of 1 August 1996 and has led to an especially sharp fall in BSE cases in cattle born after July 1996. BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986. In total, more than 183,000 cases have been confirmed in the UK, of which more than 95% were detected before 2000.

What are the conditions for opening negotiations on ending the UK embargo?

The Commission considers that two minimum conditions must be met before a negotiation with the Member States on lifting the UK embargo can begin:

• The incidence of BSE in the UK must be below 200 cases per million animals per year, which is the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) definition of a country at “moderate risk” of BSE (the UK was previously classified as “high risk”). An EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) opinion in May 2004 indicated that the incidence of BSE in the UK should drop below 200 in the second half of 2004. This prediction was confirmed by EFSA in February 2005.

• A favourable inspection visit by the FVO (the Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office) indicating that the UK is able to comply with the BSE measures in force in the other EU Member States. The FVO visited the UK in June 2005 (final report published on EUROPA - Food and Veterinary Office - Introduction). The report was discussed with Member States in a working group meeting on 28 September 2005.

When both conditions are complied with, a discussion with the Member States on the lifting of the embargo could be initiated, based on a proposal from the European Commission.

Which issues did the FVO inspection cover?

The inspection visit of the FVO in June 2005 evaluated the implementation in the UK of the main measures in place against BSE. Specifically, the inspection covered both passive and active surveillance for BSE*, the removal and handling of Specified Risk Material (SRM), the system for identifying and registering cattle (aspects directly relevant to BSE protective measures) and the prohibition of feeding processed animal proteins to farmed animals. The inspection visit also looked at the follow-up measures taken in response to the recommendations made following a previous FVO inspection visit.

*Passive surveillance for BSE is the testing of animals showing clinical symptoms that might indicate BSE (requirement introduced at EU level in 1998). Active surveillance, introduced in 2000, is the testing of healthy slaughtered animals and risk animals using rapid post mortem tests.

How are BSE rules monitored and enforced?
Member States are responsible for ensuring that EU rules are put into practice in their respective territories. The Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) carries out inspections to verify the correct implementation, enforcement and controls of EU legislation by the competent national authorities. When a confirmed breach of the legislation is reported, the Commission initiates infringement procedures against the Member State concerned. The FVO’s inspection reports are published on the Commission's website at:

http://europa.eu.int/comm/food/fvo/ir_search_en.cfm

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