Mad cow disease: FAO recommends precautions

FAO believes that food safety is an essential component of food security, and everyone has a right to safe and nutritious food. FAO has therefore urged countries around the world to be concerned about the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease, and for those countries most at risk to take action to protect the human population. In response to growing concern, FAO addresses below a series of questions on the subject and offers its recommendations.

How serious is the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease to countries outside Europe?

FAO estimates that between 1986-96 up to today, meat and bone meal (MBM) from Europe was exported to more than 100 countries. Around 100 countries imported live cattle. Some countries also re-exported MBM to third countries.

All countries which have imported cattle or meat and bone meal that originated from Western Europe, during and since the 1980s, can be therefore considered at risk from the disease. Regions that have imported sizeable quantities of meat meal from the UK during and since the 1980s include the Near East, Eastern Europe and Asia.

The least likely risks are in Latin America, Australia and New Zealand because of the nature of their industries, systems of production, and sources of MBM.

A country's particular risk of BSE depends on the quantities and source of MBM imported. Where and how was MBM used, i.e. in dairy feed as opposed to poultry feeds? What is the national system of rendering and recycling of cattle/animal waste? The national BSE risk is further dependent on internal surveillance systems.

FAO endorses the European Commission Scientific Steering Committee's BSE risk assessment study. It is based on whether countries have imported MBM or live cattle during the risk period (1980s onwards), as well as the measures in place for risk management in the livestock, meat and feed industries, as well as the nature and structure of those industries.

According to this study it is 'highly unlikely that the BSE agent is present' in Argentina, Australia, Chile, Norway, New Zealand and Paraguay. Canada and the USA are unlikely to have BSE in their herds but it cannot be excluded. Switzerland has identified BSE at a low level.

What is FAO's advice to countries outside Western Europe which are concerned about the possible threat of mad cow disease?

FAO urges countries around the world, not just those in Western Europe, to be concerned about the risk of BSE and its human form, the new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD). FAO calls for action to protect the human population, as well as the livestock, feed and meat industries.

Our message is that all countries should take precautionary measures. This would include general improvements in the food and feed safety system.

What action does FAO recommend?

For countries which have imported animals and MBM from BSE-infected trading partners, FAO advises the adoption of a precautionary approach:

  • A ban on the feeding of meat and bone meal to cattle, sheep and goats. To reduce the risk of infection even further, countries could consider a ban on the feeding of MBM to all animals.
  • Active surveillance measures for the detection, control and eradication of BSE.
  • The requirement to remove specified high-risk materials (like spinal cord, brain, eyes, tonsils, parts of the intestines) from cattle, sheep and goats from the human and animal food chains. These materials account for over 95% of infectivity.
  • The prohibition of dead animals not fit for human consumption being used for feed production.
  • Improved risk management and communication on food safety issues.

For developing countries, the most important action is to closely monitor their herds and to ensure the reporting of animals which show BSE-like symptoms. The introduction of targeted testing for BSE, where there is a high risk, should be considered.

Risk management should be based on sound and thorough risk assessment. An initial risk assessment of BSE for selected countries not belonging to the EU has been carried out by the EC. FAO supports the EC's action and considers that there is an urgent need to refine the risk assessment and to extend it to other countries and regions. Furthermore, countries themselves should initiate their own risk assessment as they hold key information as to internal use of imported risk materials and processing and recycling of bovine waste.

FAO advises countries to consider banning MBM in animal feed. What are the alternative feed resources?

There are many alternative feed resources. Many countries have sustainable systems of animal production which are highly appropriate to their locally available resources. Meat and bone meal is only a small part of the raw materials used in the feed industry (2% in Europe).

FAO's Internet-based Animal Feed Resources Information System contains information about 50 alternative vegetable protein resources, such as legumes, pulses and oil cakes.

What are FAO's recommendations to consumers?

From the information presently available, FAO has no reason to believe that milk is not safe.

Low quality beef products (that may contain mechanically removed meat) are the most risky. There is no evidence so far of natural occurrence of BSE in other ruminants. There is also no evidence of BSE infection in pork and poultry meat.

What is FAO doing to address the concerns of developing countries?

FAO is offering advice on legislation and technical aspects, as well as on capacity building of government officials and other personnel.

FAO, together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), will hold an expert consultation most probably in June, to review and synthesize the current knowledge on pathogenesis, epidemiology, distribution, likely course, prevention and control of BSE/vCJD and, based on this review, draw up advice for countries, particularly developing countries, to protect their people from nvCJD, their livestock from BSE, and their industries from trade restrictions and their repercussions.

Furthermore, the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius is currently finalizing work on a 'Code of Practice for Good Animal Feeding' to ensure that animal products do not create risks to consumers.

What are the main elements of the Code of Practice for Good Animal Feeding?

This code of practice applies to feed manufacturing and to the use of all feeds, other than those consumed while grazing free range. The objective of the code is to encourage adherence to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) during the procurement, handling, storage, processing (however minimal), and distribution of feed for food producing animals. A further objective is to encourage good feeding practices on the farm. This code outlines the means by which hazards can be controlled by adopting appropriate processing, handling and monitoring procedures.

8 February 2001


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©FAO, 2001