Successful EU response to BSE

BSE - a crisis in Europe and worldwide

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle became first a European and later a global animal health and food safety crisis with major implications also on the trade and export of animals and derived products. Research suggests that the source of this disease was cattle feed prepared from BSE-infected animal tissues, such as brain and spinal cord. The infectious agent – a prion – which causes BSE in cattle can be transmitted to humans through consumption of contaminated meat causing variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). BSE and vCJD belong to a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs).

During the epidemic, more than 185,000 BSE cases in cattle were confirmed in the European Union. At the height of the crisis, consumer confidence in the food chain was at an all time low. In response to this, the European Union implemented a new,  comprehensive regulatory framework to improve EU food safety, ensure a high level of consumer protection and restore and maintain confidence in the EU food supply. The new EU food law created a functional separation between risk assessment and risk management and established  EFSA as the keystone of EU risk assessment and risk communication regarding food and feed safety.

EFSA’s scientific advice critical to protect consumers

The European Union's response to the BSE crisis was guided by scientific advice. Since 2003, EFSA has been responsible for providing independent scientific advice to decision-makers in the EU and Member States on all animal health and food-related aspects of BSE in the EU. Prior to EFSA, a TSE/BSE ad hoc Group of the European Commission Scientific Steering Committee advised in these scientific matters.

EFSA has provided a large body of scientific advice to risk managers on the risks of BSE and other TSEs as well as on the impact of control measures put in place in the EU. EFSA’s achievements in this area include:

  • Reviews of the EU TSE monitoring programmes in cattle, sheep and goats;
  • Evaluations of the TSE risks associated with certain animal tissues (specified risk material);
  • Assessments of the BSE risks associated with the use of animal proteins in animal feed;
  • Evaluations of diagnostic tests used in the EU to detect BSE/TSE in ruminants;
  • Assessment of the TSE infectivity including BSE in tissues and milk from small ruminants’ and in goat meat;
  • Assessments of the geographical BSE risk of countries (since 2007, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) carries out this task).

Successful EU response

The coordinated European response to BSE has proven successful both in terms of reducing prevalence of disease as well as in restoring consumer confidence. Due to the effective measures, the number of BSE cases has dropped significantly in the EU from several thousands of cases in the early 2000s to 44 in 2010. Similarly, the number of annual human cases of vCJD have drastically decreased. In the United Kingdom, cases have decreased from over 120 cases between 1996 and 2002 (with 28 deaths in 2000) to around one diagnosis per year. Consumer confidence has also increased: in 2010, only 2% of EU consumers spontaneously indicated BSE as a possible risk associated with food (Eurobarometer survey on food-related risks).

The EU has laid down a comprehensive set of harmonised rules for the prevention, control and eradication of BSE, including an EU-wide total ban on the feeding of animal proteins to farmed animals, the removal of potentially BSE-contaminated animal tissues from the food chain and a comprehensive disease monitoring system. EFSA has provided and continues to provide independent scientific advice to assist EU decision makers in managing risks associated with BSE.

The risk of BSE continues to be evaluated and strictly controlled in the EU with EFSA providing scientific support to risk managers to help prevent any potential re-emergence of BSE in Europe. In the light of the reduction of BSE risk, EU measures are being reviewed and the European Commission has adopted a strategic document – the TSE Roadmap II - which outlines possible future changes in the short, medium and long term until the year 2015. This review process is informed at all stages by EFSA’s scientific advice.

EFSA continues to monitor the BSE situation closely as part of its long-term risk assessment efforts, taking into account new scientific knowledge and the most recent monitoring data on BSE. Current activities include for example providing scientific assistance for the design of efficient BSE monitoring systems in line with OIE requirements. BSE will continue to be a challenge for EFSA in the years to come.

Further information