3 June 2003, Rome -- The discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a cow in Canada proves that active surveillance and diagnosis programmes are working, FAO said in a statement today.

"The identification of a single case of BSE is not a cause for panic," said FAO's Andrew Speedy, Animal Production and Health Division.

"It is good news that odd single cases of BSE are being picked up by inspection. There has been no sign of an escalation of numbers in any of the countries that have identified isolated cases. Rather, it demonstrates that active surveillance is picking up the one-in-a-million case."

"All countries should continue to check for the disease and apply precautionary measures, even where BSE has never been found," Speedy said.

BSE cases since 2001

A few cases of BSE have been found since 2001 in a number of new countries like the Czech Republic (4), Greece (1), Israel (1), Japan (7), Luxemburg (2), Poland (5), Slovakia (11) and Slovenia (3), according to official reports to the Office International des Epizooties (OIE).

"This is the result of effective government programmes to find and destroy the disease," Speedy said.

"In addition, the trend in the European countries which were most affected is certainly downwards. In the UK, for example, the numbers peaked in 1992 with 37 000 cases and went down to 1 144 cases in 2002. There were less than 1 000 cases identified by the surveillance programmes in the rest of Europe in 2002, out of a total cattle population of over 80 million."

Meat-and-bone-meal is no longer fed to ruminants in many countries and it has been banned altogether in the EU, according to FAO. Programmes are in place to test large numbers of animals by microscopic examination and modern laboratory tests. Affected animals are destroyed. These steps are meant to ensure that infective material will not enter the food chain.

More stringent controls required

FAO urged countries to apply its recommendations made together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and OIE in 2001.

"Even countries which have not found any cases of BSE should now consider adopting more stringent measures," Speedy said.

In particular, countries should apply the following measures:
  • A national risk assessment should be conducted for the presence of BSE, considering imports of feed and cattle and the efficiency of the rendering and feed industries.

  • Specified risk materials (brains, eyes, tonsils, spinal cord, etc.) should be removed from all beef and sheep carcasses over 12 and 6 months respectively.

  • Standards of rendering need to be improved with the correct temperature, pressure and time of processing (133 degrees, 3 bar, 20 minutes).

  • All cross-contamination of rendered products and in animal feed manufacture must be avoided. There are risks of cross-contamination if feed for poultry and pigs or pet food is in contact with feed for cows.

  • Where this cannot be achieved, the use of meat and bone meal in animal feeds should be banned altogether.

  • Besides passive surveillance and testing of all animals showing neurological symptoms, active surveillance should be carried out, including: all cows which are killed because of disease or accident, all emergency slaughtered cows, and a random sample of all cows during routine slaughter.

  • Cows found with BSE must be killed; all direct offspring of cows with BSE should be slaughtered as well as all animals born in the same year and the same herd as the animal with BSE; in all these cases, the carcass must be incinerated.

  • Effective national identification and recording should be implemented to ensure that animals can be traced back to source.
Open trade depends on assurance that the product is safe and this can only be achieved by undertaking the national risk assessment, active surveillance and implementation of all recommended measures, Speedy said. "It is not so much whether there have been isolated cases of BSE found by animal testing, but rather whether the exporting country can provide assurance that the system is in place to keep infective material out of the food chain."

Spreading 'good practices'

To help other countries implement stricter controls, FAO is facilitating cooperation between Switzerland, which has successfully dealt with the BSE crisis, and countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.

"Training the trainers in this cooperation project will allow the spread of expertise in further countries requiring such assistance. This will involve not only inspectors and laboratory personnel but also those involved in the feed and meat industries so that they are trained in 'good practices' which minimize the risks throughout the food chain."

Keeping the dangerous material out of the food chain and not amplifying the risk through feeding it back to animals are the principle factors to ensure against the survival of BSE in a country.

"Stricter rules and attention to detail are called for to be absolutely sure that meat is safe," Speedy said.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 5705 3105