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Update on BSE related issues
The EU Scientific Steering Committee published on the 19 April new opinions on the safety for human consumption of animal bones and blood in the light of the latest knowledge of the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) contamination. The Committee reiterated and refined its recommendations to remove high risk materials from the food chain.
Beef on the bone. The Committee was asked to re-assess the situation following the December 1999 decision of the UK to lift its 1997 national ban on the sale to consumers of beef on the bone, allowing butchers to resume sales of cuts such as T-bone steak. The Committee considered that to date the risk associated with meat on the bone in the UK has significantly decreased since December 1997. It considered the risk from meat on the bone negligible, provided the entire package of measures put in place by the UK government to manage the BSE risk is properly implemented.
Risk of BSE in small ruminants. Reviewing the situation regarding the risk of BSE in sheep and goats in EU countries, the Committee stated that the risk that BSE has entered small ruminant herds has decreased since 1998 as a result of measures such as the EU-wide ban of meat-and-bone meal in ruminant feed. Updating its previous opinion of 1997, the Committee now recommends that the skull and spinal cord of sheep and goats over 12 months, and the spleen of animals of all ages are removed from the food chain. But it sees no need to go beyond this - so long as no BSE case in sheep or goats is found. On the safety of the intestine and lymph nodes, research is underway and results are urgently needed to improve the risk assessment. Further risk analysis scenarios will be developed by the SSC.
Tallow and gelatine. The Committee was able for the first time to make a quantitative assessment of the BSE risk of cattle bones in gelatine and tallow production, building on its previous qualitative assessments. The results lead the Committee to refine its previous recommendations. In high risk countries such as the UK the use of the vertebral column of cattle as raw material for the production of gelatine and tallow for human and animal consumption is not considered to be safe, and should, in consequence, continue to be excluded unless sourced from certain categories of animals (for example DBES). In countries with a lower BSE risk, the additional safety to be gained from eliminating the vertebral column would in its view be limited.
Safety of blood. The Committee adopted an opinion on the safety of blood of cattle, sheep and goats. As animal blood is used in certain food products and in feed, as well as in certain medicinal products, and spread on land as a fertiliser, the question was, therefore, raised if BSE can be transferred and spread via blood or blood products. The Committee expressed concern about the risk of contamination of animal blood by the release of BSE-infected brain tissue into animals' bloodstream as a result of certain slaughtering methods, for example, captive bolt stunning in combination with compressed air. Such slaughter methods should in the Committee's view be adapted or excluded. The risk of BSE contamination of blood by certain slaughter methods is in its view much higher than the much smaller risk that blood itself from BSE infected animals would be a source of spreading infectivity. The Committee recommends that in situations where a BSE or scrapie risk exists, recycling of cattle, sheep and goat blood into cattle, sheep and goat feed should be avoided.
BSE and vCJD. The scientists also adopted an opinion which attempts to estimate how much of a product infected with BSE a person needs to consume to risk contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The Committee has not, on the basis of the current state-of-the-art, been able to quantify a minimum dose of BSE that causes infection in humans. It was also unable to quantify the barrier for transmission of the infection from cattle to humans. In the absence of reliable data risk managers should work with the hypothesis that consuming a very small amount of contaminated bovine products may cause vCJD.