INFO MEMO : HEARING No 17

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) CJD :
Our health at risk?

24 and 25 June 1996 European Parliament BRUSSELS

COMMITTEE ON THE ENVIRONMENT,
PUBLIC HEALTH AND CONSUMER PROTECTION
COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE
AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT


INTRODUCTION

COLLINS CALLS FOR EUROPEAN SOLUTION TO BSE CRISIS

If the European Community had not existed before the BSE crisis, it would have had to be invented, Mr Ken COLLINS, chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, said as he opened the hearing, held jointly with the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, at the European Parliament in Brussels on Monday 24 June 1996.

"This is not an issue which can be contained within one country," he told the meeting. "The effect has been felt in other countries of the Community. We have to find a European level response to it. If the European Community had not existed before the BSE crisis, we would have had to invent something like it to find a solution".

Unless consumer confidence picked up, there was no doubt at all that the beef industry would continue to suffer - not just in the UK, where there had been more than 160 000 cattle affected, but in other countries where there had been almost no cases at all.

The EP was good at opening up to the public gaze an issue like this which had, in some ways, been discussed hitherto behind closed doors. The purpose of this hearing was to bring the discussion into the public domain.

The protection of health was a Treaty obligation. Since 1990 the EP had raised the BSE problem at Community level and had urged the Commission to act by banning protein foodstuffs for cows and developing research into BSE and its transmissibility because there was already some evidence of a possible link between BSE and CJD.

Again in 1993 the EP had insisted upon the need to keep the citizens of Europe properly informed and had taken the view that the initiatives taken by the Commission were insufficient.

"With the current crisis, the EP again called - on 28 March and 6 June this year - for firm and substantive decisions at the Community level to eradicate BSE, to prevent the spread of BSE within Europe and the wider world, to help beef producers and, above all, to restore the confidence of consumers", he said.

The so called "mad cow crisis" highlighted the general problem of food safety. "For the sake of productivity, should we put our health at risk?" asked Mr COLLINS.

PART I: BSE: EPIDEMIOLOGY

Presentation of the latest scientific data on BSE

Dr BLANCOU said that the OIE (with 143 member countries) was the only world organisation for animal health.

The OIE has a permanent staff of 30, an estimated 100 experts working voluntarily, and 104 reference laboratories.

Dr BLANCOU underlined the 2 main objectives of the OIE :

  1. . World surveillance of 104 animal diseases, including BSE;
  2. Harmonization of legislation regulating trade in animals and animal products through the world (the OIE International Health Code).

In the OIE surveillance of BSE, epidemiological studies of affected cattle have shown, in most cases, potential exposure to protein products of animal origin. Some cases have occurred in animals born after the prohibition on incorporation of meat and bone meal in feed for ruminants came into force ("BAB" - born after the ban) :

The OIE has followed the evolution of BSE since it made its appearance and has prepared several normative texts on the subject since 1990. These have been regularly updated, with continuous concern for the protection of animal and public health. According to the International Animal Health Code, this is a nervous disease of adult cattle, affecting individuals and not whole herds. There is no evidence that it is contagious. It has a long incubation period, measured in years.

The Code, added Dr BLANCOU, divides countries into 4 categories based on the incidence of BSE (Chapter 3-2-13 on BSE).

1. High incidence countries :
UK - 168 000 cases

2. Low incidence countries :
CH 216 cases
IRL 125 cases
PT 39 cases
FR 20 cases

3. Countries where all BSE cases have clearly originated directly from importation of live cattle from countries where BSE has been reported :

In the EU :
D 2 cases
I 2 cases
DK 1 case

In third countries :
Canada, Falkland Islands, Sultanate of Oman.

These countries may be considered free of BSE (no incidence).

4. Countries with no cases of BSE (reported by their governments). Among these countries one must distinguish between :
a. countries with effective and continuous surveillance
b. countries with no surveillance.

Veterinary controls have been set up in all these countries.

In addition, concluded Dr. BLANCOU the Code specifies the conditions to be satisfied in international trade : "Veterinary Administrations can authorise without restriction the import or transit through their territory, directly or indirectly, of milk, milk products, hides and skins originating from healthy animals from countries where BSE has been reported. There is also no scientific evidence of a risk associated with the trade in semen from healthy animals. By-products, such as gelatin, collagen and tallow are considered to be safe if produced by processes (under study) which inactivate any residual BSE-infectivity."

Responding to questions by various MEPs, Dr. BLANCOU said that :


Origins and causes of BSE

Dr GROSCHUP addressed the question of the causes of BSE and the reasons why BSE led to such a big epidemic in the UK in particular.

The origin of the agent was either scrapie in sheep and cattle or it is a new agent in cattle which was already present in the UK before the BSE crisis but only in small quantities.

Three factors were decisive for the emergence of the epidemic in the UK:

  1. The emergence of transmissible encephalopathies in the British animal population. There was a high incidence of scrapie in British sheep ;
  2. Changes in rendering, which meant that the efficiency of BSE and scrapie agent inactivation was reduced so that these agents could survive the treatments involved;
  3. The increased use of animal feedstuffs for cattle in the UK.

The most important measure to combat this problem was the 1988 UK ban on the use of animal protein in cattle feedingstuffs.

BSE had a four to five year incubation period. While there had been a reduction in the incidence of BSE in cattle in recent years, 28 000 cattle born since the ban had been found to be suffering from BSE. This was because cattle had been fed with these feedingstuffs illegally. "Some British farmers have continued to feed cattle with infectious bone meal, which was not meant for ruminants, but for pigs or poultry," he said.

The Specified Bovine Offal ban was introduced in 1989 (for food for human beings) and in 1990 (for animal feed) to remove possibly infectious tissues from any slaughtered British cattle intended for human or animal consumption.

However, it was scarcely possible to remove brain and spinal cord completely from the slaughtered animal on a routine basis. There were also problems with the retina of the eye, which was now known to be highly infectious.

Until March 1996 British cattle could have been infected, through feedingstuffs, by the BSE agent. "The British cattle population before 1996 must be regarded as potentially affected by BSE," he said, "since it is impossible to date to identify the presumably declining number of infected animals".

Was there a danger for human beings from the disease? No link between CJD and BSE had been proven, he said. However, there were coincidences of time and place, which could not be explained away.


Dr OBERTHÜR told the hearing that it was a 'high probability' that BSE was caused by a recycling of bovine tissue into cattle feed. He said the early explosive increase in BSE cases pointed to a kind of chain reaction involving infectious particles. A catastrophe could have taken place if the ruminant feed ban had not been imposed.

In response to Mr COLLINS, who wanted to know if there was any link between the use of organo-phosphates and BSE, both Mr OBERTHÜR and Mr GROSCHUP felt there was no evidence of such an interaction on the present level of knowledge. Mr OBERTHÜR pointed out there was a big fall in the number of BSE cases in the UK after the use of ruminant proteins in the preparation of animal feed was banned. Organo-phosphates might still have acted as a trigger but there was no proof of this, he said.

In reply to other questions, Mr OBERTHÜR ruled out the possibility of groundwater being contaminated by rendering plants. He also said there was no possibility of the BSE agent being passed on through feed bins which once stored contaminated feed. He did, however, admit that the infected dose required to pass on the disease was very low - at less than 1 gramme of infected brain. Mr OBERTHÜR also insisted that the rendering procedure could be guaranteed with the requisite heat treatment and strict monitoring.


Developments in methodology of diagnostics and diagnostic tests on dead and live animals

General aspects

Prof. SAVEY [who was not able to address the hearing until 25 June] introduced his speech by underlining that :
"BSE is a transmissible disease but currently cannot be considered contagious". In fact the exact nature of the infectious agents is not known. There are therefore no methods available for identifying infected animals and animals affected by the disease but still alive.

State of the art of diagnosis

Prof. SAVEY then gave the reasons why diagnosis of BSE is still a difficult matter :

Moreover, he added that the scientific community itself is divided on different possible causes of the disease, e.g. perhaps a little virus, perhaps the prions (the hypothesis which has received the most attention by the media).

Research

Prof. SAVEY said that research is currently following two directions :

Prof. SAVEY concluded that the future of research was based on comparison with research into other diseases (e.g. CJD).

He added that it was possible to control a disease without knowing the cause (as has been done e.g. with plague) and it was possible to agree on a diagnosis without agreeing on the origin of a disease, but to develop a test a consensus was needed the methods for diagnosis and on the causes of the sickness.

The solution is therefore a consensus within the scientific community which is possible only through by pooling the available information and test results on transmissibility/non transmissibility from animals to human beings.

PART II : TRANSMISSIBILITY OF BSE

Transmissibility of BSE from cows to calves and other animals

Prof. ANDERSON said that the scientific evidence pointed to the fact that BSE was a transmissible agent and that at present it was not possible to support arguments about co-factors such as the use of chemical fertilizers (organo-phosphate) sprays.

The epidemic had begun in 1986 and BSE cases in Great Britain had peaked in 1992. After 1992 the epidemic had been declining rapidly . The majority of cases had been in dairy animals, not beef. This was because of the high meat and bone meal diets given to young dairy animals before the food ban in mid-1988. The feeding pattern of beef animals is different. They suckle from the mother for a longer period and so have been exposed to less artificial protein feed.

Current evidence suggested that the incubation period of BSE - defined as from the time of the acquisition of the infection to when neurological disease (BSE) is diagnosed - was approximately 4 to 5 years on average. However, cases did occur before and after that period since there was much variability in individual animals in the incubation period.

To understand the transmission of the agent, it was necessary to analyse the pattern of the epidemic and the demography of the UK cattle herd. Life expectancy of cattle in the UK from birth was 2 to 3 years, but those that joined a dairy herd at the age of two (the normal age) might have a life expectancy of 4 to 5 years thereafter. (The size of the national herd in Britain had fallen from 13 million in 1975 to about 9.5 million in 1995.)

Many uncertainties still surrounded the transmission of BSE in cattle: maternal transmission; time-dependent and age-dependent exposure to infected feed; variability in infectiveness over the incubation period; age- dependent susceptibility; the incubation period (Is this age-dependent or dose-dependent ?); and host genetics and its influence on the course of disease.

Scientific methods were available, given knowledge of the incubation period, to back-calculate when animals acquired infection on the basis of the observed trends in the number of BSE cases per year. Such analysis showed clearly that the incidence of new infection fell dramatically in 1989 after the food ban was introduced. Since then, it had continued to fall, but new infections had persisted at a low level in recent years. Three hypotheses might explain these new infections:

  1. the continued use of contaminated food;
  2. maternal transmission from mother to calf;
  3. horizontal transmission.

At present further analysis and experiments suggested contaminated foodstuffs as the major cause. The likelihood of vertical transmission remains uncertain but, if present, analysis suggests it accounts for a very small fraction of new cases since 1989. At present there is no evidence of horizontal transmission.

Scientific methods were available to work out the optimal culling policy to rapidly eliminate BSE in the UK. Current data on the epidemiology of BSE in cattle and the demography of the UK cattle herd facilitated such predictions.


Transmissibility of BSE from animals to human beings

Dr WILL said that scrapie had been endemic in sheep flocks in many countries for many years but there was no good evidence that it had caused disease in the human population. CJD occurred in countries like Australia and New Zealand that were scrapie-free and there was no evidence of an increased risk of CJD through occupational exposure to scrapie.

It could be argued that scrapie in cows was, therefore, unlikely to pose a threat to human health, but this hypothesis might be incorrect. The agents of the spongiform encephalopathies could be transmitted to susceptible laboratory host species and in some of these experiments the characteristics of the infectious agent could change after transmission from one species to another. It was, therefore, possible that the BSE agent might pose a greater risk to the human population than scrapie and indeed the transmission characteristics of the BSE agent in laboratory mice were distinct from previously studied strains of scrapie. It had, therefore, been imperative to minimize any potential human exposure to the BSE agent and this had led to a range of legislative measures in the UK. Of particular importance was the specified bovine offal ban introduced in 1989 to prevent tissue containing high levels of infectivity, such as brain and spinal cord, from entering the human food chain.

The CJD surveillance unit was established in 1990 in the UK in order to determine any change in the pattern of this disease following the epidemic of BSE in the cattle population in the UK. Data from this study had been published in annual reports and although there had been some changes in the epidemiological characteristics of CJD, comparative evidence from other countries in the European Union suggested that there was no distinct change in the UK that might be related to BSE.

However, early in 1996 10 cases of CJD were identified in the UK with unusual clinical phenotype and neuropathological changes distinct from any previously seen in the study in the UK. Detailed investigations of these cases had failed to reveal any common risk factor for CJD, including recognized risk factors such as an iatrogenic source of infection or a mutation of the prion protein gene. It was felt that these cases might represent a new variant of CJD and, in the absence of any other explanation, there was a possibility that these cases might represent a causal link between BSE and human disease.

Dr WILL accepted that there was major public concern about BSE and CJD. Scientific research could not give answers in the immediate future and, in his opinion, it might be six to 18 months before epidemiological studies could provide more definitive evidence. In the meantime, it was important to stress a number of facts:


Dr. HEYMANN said that since the identification of BSE in 1986 the main role of WHO had been the regular monitoring of real potential risks of BSE to human health. With this in mind and with the aim of evaluating possible means of transmission, four expert meetings were convened by WHO in 1991, 1993 and 1994 (together with the Office of International Zoonoses) and 1995.

The epidemiological and experimental data available included :

After reviewing these data, most of the experts :

Following the report of 10 cases of a newly identified variant of CJD in the UK in March 1996, WHO convened two consultations (April and May 1996) to review the public health issues related to BSE and the newly identified variant of CJD. The consultations concluded that :

Measures to be taken

Dr. HEYMANN stressed that the consultations confirmed the importance of :

Recommendations

The consultations concluded that :

They recommended :

Based on these recommendations, WHO is presently establishing an intensified worldwide system for CJD surveillance.

WHO will also continue to update the current "state of the art" as it has done since 1991 because advancing knowledge through research, however slow or rapid it may be, will in the long run allow the best decisions to be taken to ensure the development of the beef industry and, above all, to restore consumer confidence and safeguard public health.


Tuesday, 25 June 1996

PART III : EFFICIENCY OF SAFETY MEASURES AGAINST THE SPREAD OF BSE

Mr JosĒ HAPPART (PSE, B), first vice-chairman of the Committee on agriculture and rural development, introduced the next speakers.

Implementation of the measures - Community control

Mr BERLINGIERI outlined the findings of six separate inspections in the UK by EU officials from the Commission's Office of Veterinary Control over the period May 1990 to May 1996.

He told the hearing that the early inspections, in particular, revealed shortcomings in animal records with insufficient data on the identification and movement of slaughtered animals. Even by the third visit in May 1994, it was still difficult to check the movement history of slaughtered animals. The following visit in September 1995 noted that there was still no control register of animal movements in England, Scotland and Wales. On the other hand, controls on the destruction of specified bovine offal had been strengthened considerably by September 1995 and the risk of contamination in feed mills had been reduced.

The subsequent visit in April 1996 was concerned that the separate slaughter policy for animals over 30 months had still not been implemented, but recorded that the UK ban on the feeding of animal protein to cattle seemed to be effective. The lack of animal records remained the weak point, Mr BERLINGIERI told MEPs. He also noted that at this time the UK authorities had very little control over the gelatine industry.

Regarding the last visit in May 1996, Mr BERLINGIERI said a complex processing chain had been put in place for slaughtering and destroying the relevant cattle, although there were still some problems with the controls. On the feed ban, he noted that feed containing meat and bone-meal delivered to farms before the ban came into effect had still not been withdrawn.

Replying to questions, Mr BERLINGIERI confirmed that 'tagging' or individual identification of cattle had been undertaken in the UK by the breeder but not by a central authority. The system had, he felt, worked reasonably well and was certainly far better than in some other states. The problem was the lengthy 6-8 year incubation period. Mr GILL from the National Farmers Union later elaborated on this point by explaining that not only was the system not centrally controlled but that farmers were only obliged to keep records on the farm for three years.

Problems were now occurring in tracing animals from six years ago, although he did feel that breeders' records provided a satisfactory way of retaining controls.

On the question of whether it was an infectious disease, Mr BERLINGIERI said this was a matter of 'semantics'. Animal feed containing the suspected bone-meal was exported up until 1996. It was, however, subject to restrictions and was also used in poultry and pigs in the UK.


Implementation of the measures - the case of Portugal

In introducing Dr CARDOSO, M. HAPPART had pointed out that, up to the end of 1995, about 30 animals had been affected by BSE in Portugal, probably due to imports of infected meat and bone-meal from the UK.

Background

Dr CARDOSO said that the first animals affected to be detected in Portugal in July 1990 were directly imported from the UK. Twelve thousand animals were in fact imported from the UK during the 1980s.

It was when the first Portuguese-born infected animal was detected that the Portuguese authorities alleged that this was due to the meat and bone meal imported from the UK.

Even after the ban in the UK (1988) these products continued to be exported to Portugal. This led to a fivefold increase in the expected number of affected animals.

What does this mean ?

Since only 7 animals among the 12000 imported were notified as being infected, one may conclude that many animals went into the food chain or were buried without the authorities being notified.

Dr CARDOSO then stressed that until 1994 the Portuguese authorities did not recognize the existence of the disease in Portugal. Hence they avoided taking measures which would have led to the identification of sick animals.

Although legislative measures were in force between 1990-1994, their enforcement was never effectively monitored. This is proven by the cases of BSE detected by private vets despite the lack of support by the authorities and of an official epidemiological detection system.

It was only after the declaration of 20 March 1996 in the Commons (UK) that new legislative measures were taken and the number of official declarations have increased with the aim of appeasing public opinion. Nevertheless, consumer confidence in control measures has been severely damaged and consumption of meat fell by up to 70 % .

The consumers felt that the official system based on Community measures did not guarantee that affected animals and banned products were not traded. In spite of the recommendations made by independent experts - on a request by the Commission - with the aim of guaranteeing the efficiency of veterinary controls in the Single Market, according to the Bendixen report such recommendations have not been enforced in Portugal.

Mr CARDOSO concluded : "The BSE crisis underlined the need for measures giving credibility to veterinary controls in order to restore consumers' confidence and promote economic activity".

Replying to questions, Dr CARDOSO said that given the amount of feedstuff imported into Portugal from the UK one would have expected 400 cases to have been reported. This, however, was not the situation. In fact, of the 45 cases reported, 7 were reported in animals originating in the UK while another 38 were born in Portugal. He admitted, however, that since 1994 bone-meal had still been imported into Portugal. The issue could only be tackled on a basis of mutual trust.


Implementation of the measures - the breeders' point of view

Mr GILL said that it was easy with hindsight to be critical of the approach adopted until recently with regard to BSE. It was important to recognize how far the science of encephalopathies had advanced during recent years. If we knew then what we know now we would have done things differently.

Two major experiments were currently taking place in the UK with regard to BSE, one involving 630 animals and the other 340 animals.

Farmers had a single aim: to get rid of this terrible disease. It was a gross misrepresentation to claim that farmers had taken feedingstuffs clearly identified as bone and red meat and had force-fed it to animals. In fact, since the early 1980s they had been pressing the foodstuff manufacturers for a feed ingredient declaration. It was only six weeks ago that the major feed companies had agreed to this.

The only procedure possible now was to restore consumer confidence with measures that were not always necessary for scientific or health reasons.

As regards controls in abattoirs, farmers had been pressing for a national control agency since the beginning of the 1990s: in April 1995 the Meat Hygiene Service had been created.

A scheme had been introduced to remove all the older cattle - those over 30 months old - from the food chain. "Now in the UK we shall be removing from food production about one million cattle - one third of all production - to re-establish the trust that the consumer needs to have in our product," he said.

If the organo-phosphate fertilizer hypothesis was adopted, why was the incidence of BSE higher in the Channel Isles where no organo-phosphates had been used.

He disputed the suggestion that levels of scrapie in sheep were very high in the UK. In fact, it was less than one per cent.

On the question of labelling the ingredients of animal feed, Mr GILL said farmers had been demanding this for some time but the request had been resisted by manufacturers fearful of giving away commercial secrets. Now a voluntary scheme has been reached under which ingredients used in the field will be labelled but not in the exact percentages in order to preserve manufacturers' rights.

UK OFFICIAL VIEW

A question was also put at this stage to Dr Kevin TAYLOR, Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer at the UK's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Asked whether the changes in the rendering process which had occurred in the UK were made with the agreement of the UK Government, he replied that the changes which took place in the UK rendering industry in the 1970s/early 1980s were independent of the Government.

Although comment at the hearing had suggested that rendering temperatures were reduced and that this allowed BSE/scrapie to survive and cause the BSE epidemic, this was not so. The important change was the discontinuation of a post-rendering process in which hydrocarbon solvents were used to remove additional fat/tallow from the solid protein-rich residue which rendering produced. The process was stopped in most plants for economic and safety reasons. The change took place suddenly and the proportion of meat and bone meal subjected to the process fell from about 70 per cent to 20 per cent (by weight) in a period of 24 months. "This period coincided with the time when BSE first entered the British cattle population," he said.

When ruminant derived protein (ie meat and bone meal or MBM) was identified as the cause of BSE in 1988, the Government had two choices. The first was to make the MBM safe by treatment at a time and temperature which would destroy the agent. However, the information required for this was not available at the time "and is still not available today". So the only practical alternative was implemented and from July 1988 the use of ruminant-derived protein in feed for ruminant animals was prohibited.

PART IV : CONSUMER PROTECTION

Safety of products, foodstuffs, pharmaceutical products

M. DELVILLE emphasized that the consequences of the current crisis confirmed the interdependence of the food chain at all levels and therefore the importance of an integrated approach to food safety.

BSE had had disastrous consequences for the industry in three main areas :

The whole impact could not be measured yet but to give an idea of the magnitude of the problem, the UK food and drinks industry alone (without mentioning the agricultural sector ) had suffered losses of up to ECU 300 m.

How can the food and drinks industry help solve this crisis ? The integrated approach of the food chain, "from the stable to the table", implies that each link of this chain has an interest for consumers.

Regarding BSE, he continued, it is important to underline that it is an animal health issue, and therefore it cannot become a "food safety issue" (given the correct application of protection measures).

The CIAA considers that effective control of foodstuffs is based on :

The system applied until now is based on 3 pillars :

  1. regulations focusing on safety and based on scientific evaluation (e.g. the creation of a Multi-disciplinary Scientific Committee to advise the Commission on issues relating to BSE and the recent decisions of the Standing Veterinary Committee).
  2. rigorous enforcement of these provisions (to ensure and restore public confidence).
  3. industry's responsibility (e.g. development of the quality assurance system and the concept of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP).

The HACCP is a management tool involving the following steps :

The importance of HACCP resides mainly in the fact that it can easily be adapted to new scientific knowledge.

The steps in question were outlined in Council Directive 93/43/EEC on Hygiene of Foodstuffs. The three pillars appear even more important when a solution to the problem of BSE is being sought.

Restore consumer confidence

M. DELVILLE went on to underline the importance of the quality and transparency of information to restore consumer confidence. For this reason, the CIAA welcomed the initiatives taken by the Commission to create a committee on BSE.

In this respect, it was important to recognize that food companies had taken specific measures, such as installing telephone helplines for consumers.

Moreover, the CIAA believed in the importance of the urgent enforcement of decisions :


Mr LUGAN, who was representing the animal fats, tallow, lard and margarine industry, said that the raw materials used in the industry came exclusively from the food chain. Tallow was one of the by-products of slaughtering.

End uses as far as human beings were concerned included fried food, biscuits and soups and soap.

In close cooperation with the European Commission, the industry had made a big contribution towards the drawing up of stringent regulations governing their activities. "The regulations see to it that our products are safe," he said.

"In the existing state of research - and results which showed that fats are safe in so far as transmission of the BSE agent is concerned - and as a result of strict implementation of the regulations, the consumer has the assurance that products placed on the market are safe," he concluded.


Mr AGER said that the pharmaceutical industry had been caught up on the edge of this issue when the Commission adopted the ban in March this year since the ban covered not only animals, meat and embryos, etc. but also derivatives destined for use in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products.

The industry was highly regulated. There was a comprehensive framework in the EU regulating the safety, quality and efficacy of all medicines authorized for patients in Europe. This was founded on a series of Community directives, regulations and guidelines.

The scientific backbone for this regulatory framework was the Committee for Proprietary Medicinal Products (CPMP) and the Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products (CVMP).

On the question under discussion, in December 1991 the CPMP had adopted guidelines on "Minimizing the risk of transmitting agents causing spongiform encephalopathy via medicinal products". These guidelines, which set out detailed parameters to ensure safety, were put in place the following year.

"The safety of patients is paramount," said Mr AGER. The industry was fortunate in having had four or five years adherence to scientifically based guidelines. "We were ahead of the problem," he said.


Mr JOFFE said that, despite the uncertainty of the size of the coming epidemic, the BSE/CJD issue should be regarded primarily as one of health protection and subject to the "precautionary principle" ie if in doubt, act to avoid harm.

It was a matter for concern that in many discussions the focus had been on economics, especially on consumer confidence. Although this was important (not least because the destruction of an industry had adverse effects on the producers), it had to take a subsidiary role.

"We have to recognize that a majority of people living in Britain may have already consumed the BSE agent," he said. "One expert suggests fifty meals as a possible average."

However, now was not the time for most British people to alter their eating habits dramatically, although it was worth trying to avoid further large amounts. The quantity of the agent was important because this affected both whether one would become affected and, if so, the number of years before onset of the disease. The range in humans was approximately 8 to 30 or more years. Among young people, the incubation period was towards the lower end of this range.

The types of food most likely to contain the BSE agent are brain and certain offals such as thymus ("ris de veau"). These were rarely consumed as such in many countries, including Britain, and in practice the greatest risk was probably from "mechanically recovered meat" (MRM). This was a sludge obtained by removing all remaining scraps of fibrous tissue, muscle, etc. from left-over bones. Unbelievably, until November 1995, this could include the vertebral column so that MRM contained some pieces of spinal cord (a high-risk material).

"MRM finds its way into all sorts of manufactured products, especially pies, sausages and hamburgers," he said."However, even in 1988, not every hamburger will have contained the agent: it is a question of probabilities."

The long incubation period meant that older people who continued eating beef and beef products were not at risk of developing CJD within their remaining lifespan. On the other hand, young children may have consumed no BSE agent at all, or only small amounts. "It is justifiable to remove beef from school menus, and more generally to protect small children in Britain, for this reason (though not because they are at increased risk, which is unlikely)," he said.

While BSE still existed in cattle, the agent would continue to enter the food chain, albeit in small quantities. This was because of the lack of trained veterinary staff, together with a history of inadequate enforcement, and the observation that "confidence" is still considered the priority by those in authority.

At this stage, the rest of the world needs to be protected from any further exposure. A cordon sanitaire around Britain for beef and beef products is therefore scientifically justified until the BSE epidemic among British cattle has ended. - not only until suitable measures are in place.

The feeding of animal remains to ruminants was monstrously unnatural, he said. "Nevertheless, it has been done for several decades - and in many countries - without manifest harm, until the rendering process was altered in Britain in the early 1980s", he said.

Speaking generally, he added: "We certainly do need to reconsider how agriculture is practised, based on the precautionary principle. Criteria would include human health and environmental protection, among others, and would need to take account of the complexity and unpredictability of biological systems."

Health protection needed to be considered in the formulation of all policies. BSE/CJD was not the first problem to result from economic logic being considered above and in isolation from other criteria.


How to restore confidence?

Mr MURRAY from the European Consumers' Association emphasised that human health was paramount. Consumers could not be forced to eat beef. And, he added, confidence in the food industry had, he felt, been declining for some time. BSE only added to this. It was important to take account of emotional reactions to the crisis as well as just scientific evidence. On the whole he felt, however, that consumers' views were not taken sufficiently into account. The only solution lay in providing as much information as possible to enable consumers to make an open choice. Despite all the recently announced measures the problem would not go away for some time. There would be some 80,000 cases in the UK this year, another 5,000 in 1997, dropping to 2,500 in 1998.

His view was that all 'suspect' meat should be removed from the food chain and this included cattle that had not been proved to have the disease but those whose life history could not be recorded. The rules should be strictly enforced and no animal whose history could not be traced should be exported. On labelling it was important to indicate the kind of meat used in food products, its origin and whether or not it had been produced through a 'mechanically recovered' treatment. This should always be indicated on the label, although in reply to questions later he said he was not yet in a position to recommend banning such a process. There needed to be closer surveillance of the rules in all member states. On the question of labelling, Mr MURRAY pointed out that the French Consumers' Association had already said that it would call for a boycott of beef whose origin was not clearly labelled.

CONCLUSIONS

Summing up the latter part of the meeting, Mr JosĒ HAPPART, first vice-chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, took the view that it was now time to put the situation into perspective. He felt the worst was now over and he for one would be eating meat in the confidence that controls were now better.

Closing the meeting, Mr Ken COLLINS, chairman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, said that an increase in EU research funding was needed to provide crucial information on questions such as how soon a tried-and-tested live test could be developed, how long a prion (if that were indeed the BSE agent) could exist for independently in the environment and whether by-products such as animal cells were safe to use.

There had been a long-term decline in confidence in foodstuffs as successive food scares had dented consumer trust. "From growth-promoting hormones in meat to salmonella in eggs and poultry and high levels of residual pesticide in fruit and vegetables, it is not surprising that consumer confidence in food production is declining," he said. This could have negative consequences for the single market.

Part of the problem was that producers themselves were often unaware of the risks. "How many times have we heard farmers saying that they had no idea of the content of the feed they gave their animals?" he asked.

As safeguards were taken to reduce the risk that human beings would contract diseases from infected meat and meat products, there was more action that the EU could take in the following areas:

  1. Health. Despite the most recent cases of CJD, it was still most likely to affect older people with symptoms similar to dementia. Therefore, the most logical EU programme to address CJD was through the new Alzheimer's programme, which was an EP initiative;
  2. Food safety. What was needed was a proper system for tracking and identifying animals, together with an effective and targeted culling programme directed to older animals, with an independent inspection team to oversee both measures;
  3. In the long term, however, the crisis would confirm the EP's repeated call for a European Food Agency independent of agricultural interests and national governments.
"Finally, we should perhaps examine the system of food production itself to try to devise a scheme that will result in wholesome food, healthy animals and production methods that do not turn our stomachs," concluded Mr Collins.


For further information, please contact : Patrick REYNOLDS - tel. 284.47.06, : Maria Grazia CAVENAGHI - tél. 284.22.39, Roy WORSLEY - tél. 284.29.41 et Edward MCVEIGH - tél. 284.34.59