ESC press releas on BSE crisis
Full Text: Opinion on BSE crisis and its consequences

Learn from the crisis and restore consumer confidence

Economic and Social Committee Press Release no 95/96
Brussels 10 July, 1996

The recommendations of the ESC Own-initiative Opinion on the "Mad Cow" crisis:

At its Plenary Session today, the Economic and Social Committee adopted, by a majority vote, with 17 votes againsta nd five abstentions, an Own-initiative Opinion on "The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis and its wide-ranging conssequences for the EU". The Rapporteur was Manuel ATAIDE FERREIRA (Portugal) a legal adviser for consumer interests and the co-rapporteurs were Campbell Christie (UK) for the trade unions and Guiseppe Pricolo (Italy) for the employers.

Whilst not seeking to take on the work of scientific or political bodies, the Committee feels that it must express the position of the Community's socio-economic groups and offer some general pointers for future action. The BSE crisis has highlighted a number of shortcomings in EU policy on consumer health protection.

It has also shown that the single market brings a need for a firm, mutually supportive policy on risk prevention. Without such a policy, there is a risk of a return to protectionism, possibly even at local level. The slump in beef consumption throughout the EU shows that the public's right to healthy, safe food no longer knows any frontiers. To restore consumer confidence, an EU policy to guarantee food safety is vital.

The Opinion also emphasizes the impact which the crisis has had on employment, not only in the beef industry but throughout the production and marketing chain. This aspect has not received sufficient attention at Community level and calls for a special initiative that is proportionate to the crisis.

The Committee welcomes the agreement reached by the Florence European Council. It also applauds the Commission departments' speedy, coordinated response to the crisis. However, the Committee points out that there have been shortcomings in this area in the past, notably in terms of prevention, effective controls and implementation of the provisions adopted. The Community must learn from this if it is to prevent any recurrence of similar situations.

There must be no deregulation in matters of health and safety. With public attention worldwide focused on the EU, it must act cohesively in order to prove its effectiveness.

For more details, journalists are asked to contact the ESC Press Department in Brussels, Belgium : Tel - (32 2) 546 93 93 Fax - (32 2) 546 97 64


é

of the Economic and Social Committee

on BSE crisis and its wide-ranging consequences for the EU

Rapporteur: Mr ATAODE FERREIRA

Co-Rapporteurs: Mr PRICOLO, Mr CHRISTIE

At its Plenary Session of 25 April 1996, the Economic and Social Committee decided, in accordance with Rule 23(3) of its Rules of Procedure, to draw up an Own-initiative Opinion on

The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis and its wide-ranging consequences for the EU.

The BSE Sub-Committee, set up in accordance with Rule 19 of the Rules of Procedure, was instructed to prepare the Committee's work on the subject. The Sub-Committee adopted a draft Committee Opinion on 2 July 1996, by a majority vote with three abstentions.

At its 337th Plenary Session (meeting of 10 July 1996), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following Opinion by 126 to 17 with 5 abstentions.

Scope of the Opinion

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has reached epidemic proportions in the UK and there have been sporadic cases in some Member States which imported cattle or meat-based meals from the UK.

There are also grounds for suspecting that a small number of human fatalities within the EU may be BSE-related. Consumers have naturally reacted to this, triggering an economic crisis in beef-farming and downstream sectors which has led to numerous job losses throughout the meat production, processing and marketing industry

In the view of the Committee, it is significant that this crisis has occurred against the backdrop of increased pressure to cut public spending generally and reductions in public-sector research as a result of public-sector cuts, privatization and deregulation. There is no substitute for properly funded public-sector monitoring and enforcement of food safety regulations and independent research into BSE and possible links with the new strain of CJD, and the Committee is concerned that the BSE crisis has coincided with cutbacks in these areas.

The recent Florence European Council agreed in principle on a framework for implementing a BSE eradication plan in the UK and approved the granting of aid to farmers, while stipulating that the BSE issue must be resolved according to scientific criteria and respect for consumer rights and public health. The Committee welcomes this agreement and notes that the Commission departments have made major efforts at coordination in the face of the gravity of the crisis.

It is not for the Committee to take on the work of scientific bodies or political bodies which will have to decide further measures for dealing with this crisis. However, the Committee is concerned at the loss of consumer confidence and is mindful of the views of the representative organizations of the EU's farmers, industry, traders, consumers and workers. The Committee therefore feels that it must make a number of general remarks and offer recommendations to the Community institutions in accordance with Article 198 of the Treaty, in order to see what lessons can be learned from this crisis which has brought serious consequences for public health and for the operation of the single market.

The Committee is also concerned at the fact that the EU decision-making mechanisms have been compromised by unilateral obstructionism. The Committee is sure that this issue will not escape the attention of the IGC. Accordingly, the present Opinion will not examine this aspect in detail.

Public health

The body of scientific and technical evidence tending to suggest that BSE might transmit to humans through food is a matter of concern.

The WHO's conclusions of April 1996 state that "a link has not yet been proven between V-CJD ... and the effect of exposure to the BSE agent". However, "the most likely hypothesis for V-CJD is the exposure .... to BSE."

The EU has proved poorly equipped to act quickly and effectively, and to provide reassurance, in defence of the health and rights of the consumer.

Despite the warnings of the experts consulted by the WHO (Geneva, May 1995) and the European Parliament's study and resolution on the subject, the Community has continued to take a relaxed - if not negligent - attitude to the possible gravity of the public health implications.

Although a series of legislative provisions have been adopted, insufficient checks have been carried out to ensure that the Member States have implemented them properly. Matters are made worse by the non-binding nature of recommendations.

The Committee also notes that health policy has been slow to address the problem of transmission of BSE and prion diseases. However, the Committee is pleased to note that the recent proposal (still under discussion) to set up an epidemiological surveillance network does consider CJD.

The warnings and hypotheses of some scientists appear to have made insufficient impression on the relevant EU authorities, as strict measures have not been established for preventing transmission across the "species barrier".

The Committee thinks that extra resources should be allotted to EU scientific research into BSE and CJD. It trusts that the findings of this research will be made more widely available than those of the programmes launched in 1990.

The interests of health protection have taken second place to the major economic interests at stake.

The views of the experts have been ignored for economic and political reasons, and the absence of proof of risk has been interpreted as proof that there is no risk.

Changes in the processing of animal meal, clearly motivated by producers' interests, were made possible by absence of adequate regulation and a lack of proper controls. Such a situation is liable to hurt everyone, including the economic operators concerned.

The agri-food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industries are rightly being criticized for having in some cases used unsafe products as a result of inadequate checks on the purchase of raw materials.

Unfortunately there is still no test usable by the agri-food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry to ensure that their raw materials do not contain any BSE agent. Until such a test is available, quality control has to rely entirely on certificates from suppliers of the raw materials.

Doubts thus remain as to whether industrial and quality control practices are as effective as they might be. Moreover, given the Member States' differing approaches to epidemiological surveillance programmes, and given the conclusions of the experts consulted by the WHO in April 1996, it is difficult to ascertain solely on the basis of origin whether raw materials are safe.

Significant measures have been taken to withdraw certain products from the market. It is vital that these continue to be strictly enforced, in accordance with the opinions of the relevant scientific committees, in resolute defence of public health. The Committee welcomes the setting-up of a multidisciplinary committee on BSE, made up of leading scientists, to provide an independent, cross-sectoral approach to the problem.

As regards the inactivation procedures and the origin of the raw materials, the Committee is concerned that in deciding to lift the ban on gelatin, tallow and semen subject to certain conditions, the Commission has ignored the recommendations of the Opinion issued on 15­April by the Scientific Committee for Food.

For the pharmaceutical industry, the European Medicinal Products Agency (EMEA/354/96 of 16 April 1996) has identified the following problems:

a)Place of origin of raw materials

b)Provenance of tissue

c)Safety of rendering procedures (temperature, pressure, duration).

The 1992 guidelines concerning excipients based on gelatin and tallow derivatives have recently been confirmed by the Medicinal Products Agency, and should continue to be heeded. However, attention is drawn to the difficulties, acknowledged by the industry itself, of clear recognition of the origin of the raw material (see (a) above).

Hence it is vital not only to prohibit production but also to compulsorily withdraw, throughout the EU, all medicinal products and placebos containing products of hazard levels I to III that are not medically essential. Those which replace them should be issued solely on prescription, as it is up to doctors to decide whether a risk is acceptable when prescribing both conventional and, in particular, homeopathic medicines.

Similar comments apply to the cosmetic industry. Consideration should be given to banning the marketing of products which have not been subject to appropriate inactivation processes.

Concerns were expressed by those working in the industry about the implications to their health from possible exposure to BSE either from contact with the infected live animals or carcases.

Based on the evidence of the Health & Safety Executive's Independent Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) and Trade Union (TU) specialists, workers have been advised that there is no discernible association with occupational exposure. Nevertheless, the Committee feels that caution is necessary, especially for workers who handle meat directly, because the longer term effects cannot be established. All appropriate precautions should be taken, and full details of all accidents should be recorded.

The internal market and the consumer

The measures taken by the Community authorities and the UK's belated recognition of the possible transmission to humans of the BSE agent have obviously sapped the European consumer's confidence in certain products which move freely within the EU. Consumers were rightly concerned to learn that infected animals, contaminated feed and other potentially dangerous bovine products had, for a certain period, moved freely within the EU.

These misgivings led to a resurgence of protectionism as consumers showed a marked reluctance to eat imported products and in some cases even those from outside their region or local area.

As consumers have switched from beef to other meats and fish, the prices of these other products have risen unduly, hitting the poorest consumers.

At the present juncture, it is desirable to exclude potentially infectious products from the market. Products with no perceivable infection risk should have all bones and nerve and lymphatic tissue removed before they are sold to consumers, as these parts cannot be decontaminated properly.

Bearing in mind consumer concern about food safety, the Committee calls for an education and information campaign to promote a healthy, balanced diet in line with the action programmes on public health.

On a more general note, the Committee stresses that the availability of clear, reliable information is a fundamental citizen's right and is crucial for restoring the desired climate of confidence. Consumer and retailer organizations should play an active part in public information campaigns. All the sectors affected by the crisis should be given prompt updates on the situation. Product labelling should give details of composition and the percentage of each ingredient.

An assessment should be made of the effectiveness of the Directive on general product safety (92/59/EEC). The Directive on liability for defective products (85/374) should be revised to include farm products and unforeseeable risks, as the Committee has already recommended.

Independently of the criticisms levelled at certain industries which use bovine derivatives as raw materials, the question arises of the financial and other problems which the BSE crisis has brought for many businesses in the beef industry (abattoirs, hauliers, packaging, processing, the dairy sector, etc). These businesses bear no direct responsibility for the situation, but are losing income because of the drop in consumption.

Impact of BSE on cattle production

The crisis in the EU beef industry worsened dramatically in the spring of 1996, following the generalized slump in consumption and the ensuing collapse of farmgate prices, while consumer prices remained stable.

The impact of the crisis on the beef sector can be summarized as follows:

-significant reduction, and in some areas stoppage, of slaughter as fewer cattle were purchased from farmers;

-parallel reduction, and in some cases stoppage, of processing of meat and meat products;

-dramatic reduction in exports, including traditional ones, to third countries;

-fall in distribution and in retail sales.

The immediate direct consequences for beef farmers were as follows:

-blockage of sales, obliging farmers to keep on the farm animals ready for slaughter;

-reduction in alternative farming possibilities, as the land is tied up producing feed for livestock which is unproductive but necessarily continues to occupy that land;

-farmers are effectively unable to benefit from any alternative CAP measures for the production of arable or organic crops.

It goes without saying that all these harmful consequences are caused by the collapse of consumption, which in some countries has slumped to around 40% . The precise impact on farm incomes cannot be calculated yet. However, the few sales being made are at prices 20% below the pre-crisis level.

It is too soon to quantify definitively the structural reduction in beef consumption caused by the "mad cow" crisis.

However, it has already been calculated that a five percentage point fall in EU consumption could increase the surplus over domestic consumption to a million tonnes. A 20% fall would product a two million tonne surplus in 1997.

It is thus clear that unless consumption picks up, the market balance which has so painfully been achieved after years of costly public action will be jeopardized.

Measures to be adopted at EU level for the beef and veal sector

Apart from the ban on the export of UK cattle, meat, and bovine byproducts to the other Member States and to third countries, which was introduced solely on health grounds, the only EU-level measures adopted hitherto have been market management measures facilitating the sale of beef into intervention.

Realizing that these were merely stopgap measures, the Commission proposed allocating ECU 650 million to income support for beef and veal producers. The Florence European Council increased this to ECU­850 million.

The Committee thinks that to revitalize the livestock sector, both emergency aid and longer term measures are needed.

Emergency aid should include:

-compensation for producers in the infected areas who must slaughter their livestock;

-compensation for farmers who have to keep cattle which are ready for slaughter but have not been withdrawn from the market;

-soft loans for farm management expenditure, for at least two farm-years;

-an increase in the premiums for male bovine animals and suckler cows.

Three longer term measures should be envisaged:

-priority aid for farmers, under the scheduled structural programmes, to adjust farm structures to the needs of health and hygiene controls and preventive measures (including regular rehabilitation of pasturage/meadows);

-grants for switching from intensive indoor rearing of male bovine animals to extensive or semi-extensive systems;

-promotion schemes (also on third markets) run by well-qualified, clearly defined producer organizations, to guarantee the quality, origin and commercial value of the product.

Animal health

Over-production and the overriding need to protect food quality, the environment and animal welfare have prompted a switch to more extensive farming methods in the EU.

This welcome trend, which is clearly evident in the CAP, is more respectful of the ecological balance which until recently was threatened by intensive farming systems that were plainly geared towards high levels of production.

However, more still needs to be done to promote animal health by means of health programmes which ensure effective disease eradication throughout the EU.

These transnational programmes must be drawn up and implemented with EU-level coordination and checks on compliance. Closer harmonization is also needed of the training received by the inspectors who carry out the checks. The subsidiarity principle should in no circumstances impede the adoption of appropriate measures to safeguard animal health. The Committee welcomes the Resolution on animal health policy and the internal market which the Agriculture Council adopted at the end of June, as the Resolution addresses these issues.

In the specific case of BSE, and in view of the urgency of the situation, it would be desirable to set up special administrative bodies where necessary; these products should be independent of producers' interests, with the power to inspect farms, abattoirs and shipments of live animals and products of animal origin, including imports from third countries.

In this context, the Committee notes with interest the Commission's proposal of 29­May to create a European inspection and control agency for animal and plant health, to be set up in Ireland. The Committee may comment at a later date on the functions of this body, notably in terms of prevention.

Health measures to be taken on beef and veal

BSE has severely hit the whole beef sector - producers, slaughter houses, processors, distributors and retailers. In such a situation, the Committee thinks that the following measures are urgently needed:

The first task is to eliminate the main cause of the disease, namely the use of meat meal in ruminant feed.

The ban on this must be enforced effectively throughout the EU forthwith, and the case should be considered for extending it as a precautionary measure to non-ruminants.

The feeding of meat products to herbivores is harmful to public health, to the farm economy, and to the environment, because it:

-is a BSE vector;

-discourages the use of plant-based meals, which are and must remain the natural foodstuff for ruminants;

-leads farmers to abandon husbandry practices based on pasturage/meadows, which should be safeguarded at least in those areas (uplands and other disadvantaged regions) where the ecological and soil balance is at risk.

Veterinary checks on the health status of farms and the types of feed supplements used must be introduced or stepped up.

The farmer should be given active responsibility through the introduction of a special document (indicating origin, diet, any illness, etc.) which would accompany each animal through to slaughter. This document should provide a basis for clear, detailed information targeted at the consumer.

Consequences for employment

The impact on employment and on the cash-flow of many companies due to the collapse of consumer confidence in beef has had a severe effect in a number of EU countries. An ETUC estimate of the impact in all Member States puts the loss of jobs in the region of 50,000.

In the UK the employment consequences are already manifest. At the end of April, the British government were of the view that 4,000 workers had been made unemployed because of the BSE crisis. The overall impact is likely to be far higher, with very early trade-union estimates of at least 10,000 jobs having been lost. This estimate is now thought to be low and the number of jobs lost is considerably more.

It must be borne in mind that there will be continual and changing impacts and that workers and businesses throughout the food chain are affected. For example, once the culling of animals over 30 months has been operating for a few months, there will be a considerable impact on farm workers. Approximately 25% of farm workers are involved directly in the beef sector. The culling of animals over 30 months will require additional abattoir workers. However, this additional work will only be for the duration of the cull.

When the culling takes place, it will impact severely on the dairy herds and the workers employed on the dairy farms. Milk supplies to the consumer will be disrupted and milk product processors such as cheese and butter manufacturers will find their raw materials cut.

At this stage it is impossible to estimate the full implications on employment in the milk sector, but they are likely to be severe.

One implication for milk producers is that older dairy cattle, which would normally have been slaughtered at the end of their economic milk-producing life, will not have been slaughtered because of the crisis and will still produce milk. With younger animals continually introduced to the herd, many thousands of milk producers may be over quota at the end of the quota year and therefore face severe penalties.

The question of whether a farmer receives compensation for culling and then can restock or not will be critical to farm workers. This will also raise questions about "clean" restocking of animals that carry no trace of BSE.

In addition to jobs in the farming industry direct, thousands of workers are involved in the beef processing and beef packaging industries; in the manufacture of beef pies and sausages and other bakery products; in live animal and refrigerated meat transport; in packaging; and in pharmaceuticals and confectionery. Jobs will be lost in all these sectors, and companies are already suffering as a result of reduced business.

Farm and food industry businesses hit by the crisis, as well as hard pressed workers, will put less money into the local economy which means fewer rural jobs. Therefore villages and local services, which are often struggling to survive, may never recover from the loss of income caused by the BSE crisis.

The scale of the social crisis caused by the BSE epidemic is still uncertain, and this leads the Committee to stress the importance of the Social Protocol to the Maastricht Treaty. The Committee is concerned that the Florence European Council did not give the employment aspect the priority it deserves and put off any decisions. The Committee recommends that the employment crisis caused by BSE be made the subject of a special Community initiative making flexible use of the various structural funds available as a recognition of the urgent nature of the crisis.

Conclusion

Public health and the safety of food products are vital for the quality of life of all EU citizens. The Committee therefore calls on the Council, Commission, Parliament and Member States to take all appropriate measures in their respective spheres of responsibility to guarantee that food products are safe for consumers and to prevent any worsening of the present situation. In this connection, the Committee calls for:

a)a ban on the production and sale of all meat-based feed for ruminants, and consideration of the case for extending the ban to non-ruminants, backed by reliable systems for the manufacture of petfoods and feed for other animals that are kept in captivity;

b)a ban on the circulation and sale of high-risk products as identified by the experts consulted by the WHO; and closer cooperation between the WHO and the relevant Commission departments;

c)checks to be carried out by independent, coordinated national authorities;

d)an information programme for all consumers and socio-economic players concerned, to be drawn up in cooperation with their representative organizations, national health authorities and other independent bodies; and a major food campaign, under the banner of health promotion and disease prevention, focusing on measures to protect against the transmission of BSE.

e)the introduction of a special document, indicating origin, diet, and illness, etc., which would accompany each cow through to slaughter. This document should provide the basis for clear, detailed information targeted at the consumer.

The Committee asks the Commission to present a draft Directive on cosmetics labelling, similar to the Directive on medicinal products, and for the labelling of all products of ruminant origin, including indication of source and type of feed, and standardization of labelling of cattle feed, with full disclosure of all ingredients including the percentage of each ingredient.

The Committee also calls for immediate removal from Council Directive 85/374 (25­July 1985) of the exemption for agricultural products and unforeseeable risks.

The Committee calls on the Commission to encourage further scientific research into BSE. At EU level, special consideration should be given to the following points:

a)Causes of BSE and links with the new strain of CJD.

b)Early diagnosis of BSE.

c)A research project to monitor the occupational health of workers in any way involved with BSE as part of their employment.

The Committee asks the Council, Parliament and Commission to provide European agencies, Community bodies and Community services with the legal, financial and human resources needed to take protective measures against BSE.

In addition to the measures already adopted or recommended to help beef farmers and the other sectors affected by the crisis, consideration should be given to support for workers and businesses in sectors and areas losing income as a result of BSE. It is important to consider how such support can be provided in a flexible, fast and effective way.

The Committee feels that a special Community initiative could well address this, since it can operate in all those parts of Europe - both urban and rural - affected by the crisis, using all the available structural funds (agricultural, social, regional).

Done at Brussels, 10 July 1996

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Carlos FERRERActing Secretary-General

of the Economic and Social Committee

Adriano GRAZIOSI

*

* *

N.B.:Appendix overleaf

APPENDIX

to the Opinion of the

Economic and Social Committee

Defeated amendement

During the discussion the following amendement, which was supported by over 25% of the votes cast was defeated.

Point 1.4.1.

Amend as follows:

"Changes in the processing of meat meal have been influenced by deregulation¸" (remainder unchanged).

Reason

Self-evident.

Voting

For:34

Against:83

Abstentions:13

 WHO/EMC/DIS/96.147

OJ C 42 of 15 February 1993

OJ L 172 of 7 July 1994, page 23;

OJ L 172 of 7 July 1994, page 25; amended by 95/29/EC in OJ L 38 of 18 February 1995, page 17;

OJ L 194 of 29 July 1994, page 96; amended by 94/794/EC in OJ L 325 of 17 December 1994, page 60, and by 95/287/EC in OJ L 181 of 1 August 1995, page 40

OJ L 78 of 28 March 1996, page 47.

For an overview of measures taken by the Commission, see Annex I to the Guide to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-Information for Consumers, published by DG XXIV.

 COM(96) 78 final

 For examples of transmission across the "species barrier" observed prior to 1995 see the Supporting Document for the OIE's ("Office International des Epizooties") International Health Code Chapter 3.2.13. on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) (updated May 1996), and references therein.

The Lancet, Vol. 347, April 1996

 "in the absence of surveillance data the status of a country with respect to the occurrence of BSE must be considered as unknown"

 The Opinion stated that "Based upon current incomplete knowledge regarding BSE and its possible transmission to humans and the uncertainty about the inactivation of the infective agent, the Committee at present is only able to advise that bovine source materials for these products are to be taken only from geographical areas where BSE does not occur in epidemic proportions". (Scientific Committee for Food, Opinion on products derived from bovine tissues in relation to BSE, Annex­I to document­III/5124/96.)

 OJ L 139 of 12 June 1996.

Guidelines on "Minimizing the risk of transmitting agents causing Spongiform Encephalopathy via medicinal products" published in Volume III, Addendum No. 2, of The rules governing medicinal products.

 Workers involved in the removal of Specified Bovine Offal (Brain and spinal cord) should:

- cover cuts and abrasions with waterproof dressings

- wear protective clothing including gloves

- avoid cuts and puncture wounds

- use face protection (chiefly for eyes and mouth) if there is a risk of splashing

- avoid or minimize the use of sharps wherever possible

- wash before eating, drinking, smoking, visiting the toilet

- wash down contaminated areas with detergent/disinfectant

- wash and disinfect the protective clothing after use.

 The May 1995 report of a WHO consultation on public health issues related to human and animal transmissible spongiform encephalopathies classifies tissue in four categories according to degree of infectiousness. Group IV, which includes milk and skeletal muscle, does not present noticeable infection risks in laboratory tests.

 ESC Opinion in OJ C 339 of 31­December 1991. The Opinion underlined the potential risks that the completion of the internal market could entail in the absence of proper monitoring and controls, and called for a consistent product safety policy, one aspect of which is liability for defective products (Point­5.3.4.).

These measures have involved:

a)on 17 April 1996, the opening of intervention-buying for 50,000 tonnes of cattle carcases of all categories, in derogation of existing provisions (Regulation (EC) No. 701/96 of 17 April 1996);

b)on 6 May 1996, acceptance into intervention of a further 50,000 tonnes of bovine meat, with special derogations for some products from the UK and Ireland (Regulation (EC) No. 834/96 of 6 May 1996);

c)on 6 May 1996, the granting of aid for private storage of veal.

 The Commission's 1997 budget proposal includes a chapter earmarking an additional MECU­873 to finance the incineration plan for cattle infected with BSE or at risk

 OJ L228 of 11 August 1992.