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Speaking Note of Commissioner Byrne on BSE
Agriculture Council of 23 July, 2001
I am pleased to update you once more on developments in relation to BSE.
The issue has disappeared in recent weeks from the news headlines. In the past, there has been an unfortunate capacity to relax controls when this happened. I am determined that this will not happen again. The Commissionís approach will not be guided by the headlines but by the evidence of risk and of the necessary controls to avert such risk. We must build on the measures taken to eliminate BSE from the EU. This is the Commissionís goal.
There are a number of issues which I would like to raise with you today.
The Food and Veterinary Office of the Commission has carried out a large number of inspections in the Member States in recent months. The first phase of these inspections, carried out late last year, focused on the then existing controls. Since then of course there have been several important new measures introduced. These are the focus of the second phase of inspections.
These reports have already hit the table in the Member States or will do so shortly. To date, the reports suggest that there is room for improvement in virtually all Member States. I would urge Ministers to drive home once more the need for a zero tolerance policy towards weaknesses in controls. The risks are simply far too high.
I intend to present a synthesis document to the Council in the Autumn summarising the findings of the FVO and in particular the identified weaknesses. However, clearly Member States should not delay in adopting the necessary corrective measures to ensure that the recommendations in these reports are acted upon.
You will recall that the original Commission proposal to ban meat and bone meal also included fishmeal within its scope. However, at the Councilís insistence, fishmeal was finally excluded. This decision was conditional on strict controls which are set out in Commission Decision 2001/9/EC.
Member States were to report to the Commission by the end of May 2001 on the operation of these controls and on tests carried out to ensure compliance. I might add that this decision received a favourable opinion in the Standing Veterinary Committee so your services are perfectly aware of this requirement.
It disappoints me that with one exception Ė Finland Ė these reports have not been received. In effect, therefore, the Commission has no official confirmation from Member States that the requirements under Community law in respect of fishmeal are being fulfilled. This is even more worrying given the reports of the Food and Veterinary Office which point to weaknesses in controls on fishmeal in the Member States recently visited.
I know that there is now a consensus around this table that BSE related controls have to be rigorously implemented. I expect, therefore, that the reports to this effect will now be forwarded to the Commission and to other Member States as required in the legislation.
The Commission will have to re-consider the decision to authorise fishmeal unless we can be confident that the controls are being implemented. I hope than when we meet next that I will be in a position to report 100% compliance with the control requirements in question thus avoiding any need to re-consider the current exemptions.
BSE Test Results
The number of tests results continues to grow exponentially. There have now been more than 3.2 million rapid tests carried out between 1 January and 30 June 2001. Over 90% of these tests have been carried out on healthy animals aged over 30 months. It is reassuring that the youngest case of BSE in these healthy animals remains at 42 months.
I must once again caution, however, against any complacency that tests are the primary protective measure against BSE. This is not the case. As I have repeatedly said, the removal of SRMs is the primary measure for the protection of consumers.
In previous Councils, I called on Member States to carefully study the trends between Member States which point to significant differences. Two trends in particular concern me. One is the continued low rate of detection of BSE cases through passive surveillance in some Member States. By passive surveillance, I mean animals reported as BSE clinical suspects.
Passive surveillance was, of course, the only means to detect BSE until rapid tests became available. It is clear, however, from both the reports of the FVO and from the long delay in confirming the presence of BSE that passive surveillance systems were totally inadequate in several Member States. The Commission will be writing to the Member States in question with a view to ensuring that the appropriate lessons have been learned from these past failures.
In the meantime, it is important that passive surveillance systems are now operating satisfactorily. The figures continue to suggest that this is not the case. I am again calling on Member States, therefore, to ensure that passive surveillance by both farmers and veterinary practitioners in brought up to an acceptable standard. It remains the first line of defence in relation to BSE and has to be taken very seriously.
Another issue of concern is the number of "at risk" animals which varies enormously from one Member States to another. These variations are out of all proportion to the herd sizes in the Member States. Clearly, the definition of "at risk" varies considerably. If we are to ensure consistency in testing and the targeting of the right animals for testing, this will have to be addressed.
You are all aware of the new testing requirements in relation to animals which die on farm. Effectively, from 1 July, all such bovines aged over 24 month have to be tested. This is a necessary measure as is clear from the relatively high incidence of BSE in this test category.
The Commission is already hearing of reports of problems in the introduction of this measure. It is especially clear that a particular problem is the provision of services for the notification, collection, transport and disposal of these animals.
If this is not done in a satisfactory manner, there is a clear risk that such animals will not be reported, or not reported in time to carry out the necessary tests. Or, worse still, that they are fraudulently disposed of with unacceptable risks for health and the environment.
But, I am sure that you need no reminding that this is a very serious issue. The optimum situation, which already exists in some Member States, is a publicly supervised scheme for the early notification of animal deaths on farm and for their subsequent collection and disposal. The Commission will again be writing to Member States in this regard.
Meat and Bone Meal
An inevitable consequence of the current ban on meat and bone meal is the question of what to do with both existing and new stocks. We already know of the huge logistical problems in the UK in this regard. Even after several years and the building of massive new incineration capacity, I note that the UK still has approximately 400.000 tonnes of MBM and 200.000 tonnes of tallow in storage awaiting destruction.
Clearly, we need to closely monitor what is happening in all Member States in relation to the storage and destruction of risk materials, including meat and bone meal. In particular, the Commission wishes to avoid future problems arising from poor storage, fraud or illegal exports of MBM.
The Council decision to ban meat and bone meal requires Member States to ensure that it is collected, transported, processed, stored or disposed of in accordance with the relevant Community provisions. The Commission will be looking for clarification from Member States in the coming weeks in this respect.
There has been important progress in relation to third countries. The Commission held a major seminar recently in Brussels with the representatives of third countries to explain the BSE measures in place. The opportunity was taken to reassure these countries that these measures, which apply also to exports, are sufficient to ensure that European beef and beef products are safe.
I also took the opportunity of the recent OIE conference in Paris to make the same point. Gradually, the message is getting through and third country restrictions are being relaxed.
Third countries are also adopting a far more responsible approach towards BSE surveillance. The candidate countries in particular are systematically introducing much improved measures, including the use of random tests. Several, including Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary now also test all healthy cattle aged over 30 months or plan to do so.
The Food and Veterinary Office will also commence an intensive series of inspections in the candidate countries on their measures in relation to BSE in recent months. I am asking for a particular focus on their surveillance measures and on procedures for removal of SRMs.
It is important that Member States show solidarity with the candidate countries in the task of improving their surveillance systems. The Commission, for its part, is looking to the various support measures open to candidate countries to be of assistance.
New scientific opinion
The Scientific Steering Committee continues to give top priority to BSE related issues. A number of important opinions have been issued in recent weeks. In particular, the SSC considers that certain adipose tissues should be considered as an SRM. A distinction is made nonetheless where contamination can be avoided.
In practice, the Commission services are of the view that the controls necessary for such a distinction would be near impossible to implement effectively. In the circumstances, it may be opportune to come forward with a proposal to include all such tissues as SRMs. The Commission is considering its options in this respect but I would hope to come forward with a proposal shortly.
The SSC opinion on the safety of tallow also provides valuable clarification on existing practices. In essence, the committee is of the opinion that tallow used in food and calf feed should always be sourced from discrete adipose tissues from animals fit for human consumption and the SRMs should be removed. For feed, the committee recommends higher standards, including pressure cooking if the raw materials are not sourced from discrete adipose tissues.
The Commission will come forward with a proposal to act on this opinion shortly.
Finally, the SSC is working on a number of other important issues including stunning techniques before slaughter and their relative risks; an evaluation of new detection techniques for the presence of prions in urine and epidemiology. I will of course keep you informed of developments.
Work is also continuing on the evaluation of new and more sensitive tests for BSE. I spoke at length on this subject at the Council in June and would just like to recall that there are very exiting prospects and developments in this area.
I need hardly remind you that it is all our interests to have a coherent Community framework of measures in place in relation to BSE. Huge progress has been made in this respect and it is paying off in a recovery in confidence in the safety of beef.
Nonetheless, some Member States continue to apply national measures which in the Commissionís view are not compatible with the Community framework. I am asking, once again, for the Member States concerned to lift these measures and to comply with the Community framework.
Thank you for your attention.