EFSA provides new scientific assessment on the age limit for the removal of specified risk materials from cattle with regard to BSE

The removal of specified risk materials (SRMs) is one of the most important risk management measures to protect the health of consumers against the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). SRMs are the animal tissues in cattle, such as brain and spinal cord, which are most at risk of carrying the infective agent. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has today published an opinion of its Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards assessing the age limit for the removal of SRMs. In its opinion, EFSA has reviewed new and existing scientific information and provided the European Commission (EC) with updated scientific advice with which to consider possible new age limit scenarios for the removal of SRMs. Presently, most SRMs in all Member States (except the UK) are removed at 12 months and it is now up to the European Commission to consider proposing any changes to this rule.

Since 2000, slaughter houses across the EU (except the UK where more specific rules apply*) have to remove SRMs from all cattle aged over 12 months of age entering the food chain. The European Commission asked EFSA to review the opinions of the former EC Scientific Steering Committee, upon which these measures were based, taking into account new information from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) on the age limit and, if necessary, to provide scientific advice on the current age limit.

The existing age limit for the removal of SRMs in cattle in the EU is currently fixed at 12 months*. Although recognizing that infection of the central nervous system in cattle below the age of 30 months was unlikely, the former EU Scientific Steering Committee took this cautious approach of recommending the removal of SRMs from cattle over the age of 12 months. The exceptional detection of young animals with clinical signs of BSE supported this assessment.

EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards and its Working group have based their assessment on surveillance data as well as on existing and new scientific research related to the development of BSE in cattle. According to epidemiological data, the average age of BSE positive cases reported in the EU increased from 86 to 108 months between 2001 and 2004, most likely due to the introduction of effective control measures. Furthermore, only 4 BSE cases under the age of 35 months have been reported since 2001 and the minimum age of animals detected every year with the disease has risen steadily from 28 to 42 months over the 2001-2004 period. From experimental scientific studies, it is now believed that cattle incubating BSE could become infectious later in the incubation period than previously thought (i.e. during the last quarter of the incubation period before the disease actually becomes detectable).

Based on the above scientific information, EFSA’s Biological Hazards Panel concluded that raising the age at which SRMs should be removed to that of 30 months would be a considerable but not an absolute safety margin. Alternatively, raising the age limit at which SRMs should be removed to 21 months would cover even the youngest animals detected with the disease since monitoring began in 2001 and would thus be a more cautious approach.

Based on EFSA’s scientific assessment concerning the age limit for the removal of SRMs, the European Commission will now consider if changes to the existing 12 month age limit should be proposed and, if so, at which age the limit should be set.

Notes to editors

*Specified Risk Materials (SRMs) are brain, spinal cord, skull, vertebral column, dorsal root ganglia and eyes. Tonsils and intestines which are also SRMs are removed from all animals in all countries regardless of the age of the animal.

**T-bone steak (being part of the vertebral column) is a fresh meat product affected by the introduction in 2000 of the 12-month age limit for the removal of SRMs. This particular cut of meat was banned in the EU given the obligation to remove the vertebral column as an SRM (except in the UK where the vertebral column is removed from the food chain with the rest of the animal at 30 months).

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