European Union - BSE and the regulations

17 Jul 2009

 At the height of the mad cow disease epidemic in Europe in the 1990s, the EU was imposing severe trade restrictions on fellow EU countries with most reported incidences, the United Kingdom being the most severely hit. A decade on, from the EU's perspective the regulator has caught up with the disease, which is officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. A raft of measures has been put in place that have dramatically increased the rate of testing animals for BSE and reduced reported incidences. But the problem is not entirely solved. One of the biggest potential export markets, the United States, has not yet lifted a ten-year ban on EU beef entering its market.
Not even beef from EU countries like Sweden with no or very low incidences of the disease are exempted from the ban, much to the annoyance of EU officials. While such measures were considered appropriate several years ago, an end is viewed as long overdue by the EU. Indeed, even the US administration no longer argues that European beef is unsafe to eat. One US trade official insisted the ban would soon be lifted and that it was merely a matter of finalising the bureaucratic procedure. "The US Department of Agriculture is working on a comprehensive rule. It is a high priority for us," the official said. But the EU's patience is wearing thin. One official noted that "they have been promising us for the past four years that this is coming but it has not happened". The EU could file a complaint at the Word Trade Organisation, alleging breach of the 1994 Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement, but it is keeping its fingers crossed this will not be necessary. Were the ban to be lifted, Europe's big beef producers, such as France, Germany, the UK and Ireland, could develop a market in the US - for example in sausages.
Ironically, the US is fighting its own battle on the BSE front against Asian countries, which have banned US beef on grounds that it does not have an adequate regime to prevent BSE outbreaks. There have been sporadic BSE incidences in the US, but on a much smaller scale than in Europe during the epidemic's peak. This is partly believed to be because whereas EU farmers used to feed cattle with meal ground up from other animal carcasses, US farmers typically fed their cattle with soybean meal as it was cheaper. The practice of feeding cattle meat and bone meal, which has been banned in the EU since 1994, is thought to be one of the primary causes of the BSE epidemic. Japan, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong are among those that still ban US beef, a situation US Trade Representative Ron Kirk is trying to reverse. The EU never imposed restrictions on US beef imports over the BSE issue, but most US beef is shut out of European markets because of the EU ban on the use of growth hormones in cattle (see separate article).
Globally, the trade problems that BSE caused have been dealt with through the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health or OIE. This intergovernmental organisation was set up as far back as 1924 to improve animal health worldwide and today has 174 member countries and territories. It was in the OIE that a global agreement was forged in 2006 enabling the world beef trade to recover from the hit it took with BSE. The EU and the US were heavily involved in the drafting of this agreement.
The EU's main weapon for fighting BSE is a 2001 regulation (999/EC). It increased veterinary inspections and required the spinal cord, brain, eyes and tonsils from cattle, sheep and goats to be removed before they enter the food and feed chain. There was a 35% drop in BSE cases between 2002 and 2007, with reported incidences in the UK plummeting from 37,056 in 1992 to 129 in 2006. The European Commision said in a 2007 information sheet that "BSE cases will probably continue to occur until 2010 or later" because the incubation period is 4-6 years.
BSE was first diagnosed in 1986 with the first EU measures to prevent it introduced in 1989. By August 2007, there had been 184,600 cases in the UK and 5,250 elsewhere in the EU mostly from infected cattle born in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Humans who consume BSE-infected meat can contract its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease or CJD of which there were 195 confirmed cases by July 2007: 163 in the UK, 22 in France, four in Ireland, two in the Netherlands, two in Portugal, one in Italy and one in Spain. 


Source: newsroom -

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