ROME, Italy, January 13, 2004 (ENS):
The discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in
the United States in December 2003 underlines the need
for countries to strengthen their control measures for
the fatal disease, the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) said Monday. The agency warned of
the "considerable risk" of spreading infectious
materials around the world, given the global trade in
animal feed and animal products.
Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE), is a deadly brain-wasting disease
spread by the consumption of infected bovine nervous
system tissue by cattle or humans.
The infectious agent is believed to be prions - abnormally
shaped proteins that originate as regular components
of neurological tissues in animals - they are not cellular
organisms or viruses. These proteins occur as a normal
part of an animal's nervous system tissue, but they
can become abnormal and deformed in a process not completely
understood by scientists.
Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another
by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by
these proteins, such as meat and bone meal that contains
nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human
form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being
eats BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.
The FAO warned that no country can claim to be BSE free,
unless this claim is validated through internationally
recognized survey methods.
"When it comes to prevention, the situation is
still confused," the agency said. In many countries,
BSE controls are still not sufficient and many countries
are not applying the recommended measures properly.
The FAO urged governments and industry to ban the feeding
of meat and bone meal to farm animals, at least to ruminants,
and to strictly avoid cross contamination in feed mills.
Governments must ensure that the meat handlers remove
and destroy specified risk materials such as the brain
and spinal cord from cattle over 30 months, the agency
said. The use of mechanically removed meat must also
be banned to ensure safety.
The rendering industry must ensure safe practices such
as treatment of the animal material at 133 degrees Celsius
under 3 bar pressure for 20 minutes.
Application of active surveillance measures within
the cattle population is important, the FAO advised,
and urged accurate identification of animals and traceability
throughout production, processing and marketing.
Testing must be targeted and effective, the FAO said.
Additional tests should be carried out on all animals
that have died or are killed other than by routine slaughter.
With these control measures in place, especially with
the feed ban and the removal of specified risk materials,
the risk of BSE infective material being present in
the food chain is "extremely low," the agency
The Office International des Epizooties (OIE), the
Paris based World Organization for Animal Health, recommends
first testing cattle that show BSE symptoms and testing
one in 10,000 to one in 100,000 of the cattle population
over 30 months.
On this basis, Australia tested about 400 animals per
year, Canada about 3,000 and the United States about
20,000 animals, a higher number than suggested by the
The OIE said in a statement on Friday that its basic
code, "The OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code"
describes conditions for the classification of countries
into one of five BSE risk categories - free, provisionally
free, minimal risk, moderate risk and high risk.
The OIE itself does not assign countries to all these
categories. These are used by importing countries when
determining the specific conditions for trade.
In the past few weeks, the OIE said, it has been requested
to examine country submissions, made on a voluntary
basis, for determining whether they meet the conditions
to be officially classified by an OIE decision as "BSE
free" or "BSE provisionally free."
So far no country has been given such recognition by
the OIE. Presently, the OIE does not give an opinion
on the other three categories.
The OIE does address trade conditions for meat commodities
through an increasing degree of restrictions according
to the risks presented. For example, fresh meat may
be imported safely from a country of any BSE status
but with increasing restrictions so that, for countries
presenting a high BSE risk, more severe measures are
applied to the cattle from which the meat was derived
and to the meat itself.
But some commodities should not be exported even from
countries presenting a low BSE risk, the OIE says. For
example, meat and bone meal, or any commodity containing
such products, which originate from countries with minimal,
moderate or high BSE risk should not be traded.
Regarding the BSE situation in the European Union and
the more recent BSE cases in Japan, Canada and the United
States, the existence of valid up-to-date standards
did not prevent major trade disruptions due to a failure
by many countries to apply the international standard
when establishing or revising their import policies.
The OIE expressed "particular concern" that
many countries slapped trade bans on beef exporting
countries as soon as they reported the first case of
BSE, without conducting a risk analysis as described
in the code.
"Such situations penalize countries with a good
and transparent surveillance system for animal diseases
and zoonoses, and which have demonstrated their ability
to control the risks identified," the OIE said.
"This may result in a reluctance to report future
cases and an increased likelihood of disease spread
To reassure consumers about beef safety, the UN food
and agriculture agency advises a testing program that
is as wide as possible. The FAO pegs the cost of testing
at around $50 per animal, but says the result justifies
"Considering the potential damage of BSE outbreaks
to human health and meat markets, testing can be considered
cost-effective," FAO said.
To reassure its consumers and to find as many BSE cases
as possible, the European Union tested over nine million
animals in 2002/3, with France and Germany testing nearly
three million each. Switzerland tested 170,000 animals,
and Japan tested virtually every cow - about 500,000
To help countries to implement stricter controls, the
FAO is carrying out training projects in several countries
and facilitating cooperation between Switzerland, which
has successfully dealt with the BSE crisis, and countries
in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.
Training targets 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.
If the control measures in the feed, meat and rendering
industries are in place and implemented effectively,
the FAO says the risks of infective material in the
food chain are very low, even in countries where the
disease is present.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights