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Speech by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection - Latest developments in relation to BSE - BSE-Debate - European Parliament, Brussels, 1st February 2001
President, distinguished Members
I am pleased of the opportunity to update Parliament on the most recent events in relation to BSE. Many of you were present when I spoke to the Agriculture Committee last week. Nonetheless, let me very briefly summarise the main events of recent weeks:
- Important new measures came into effect from 1 January. These included the ban on meat and bone meal and the testing of all animals aged over 30 months destined for the food chain.
- The Commission wrote to all Ministers for Agriculture on 4 January and asked for replies to an extensive questionnaire on the implementation of BSE related measures. A working document, summarising the responses, was circulated to the Agriculture Council on Monday;
- The opinion of the Scientific Steering Committee on a number of BSE-related questions from the Commission was published on 17 January.
This set the agenda for the Agriculture Council on Monday. Following the usual very lengthy discussions, Member States agreed on the following main orientations:
- A ban on mechanically recovered meat;
- The heat treatment of ruminant fats for inclusion in animal feed;
- The removal of the vertebral column, the backbone, from cattle.
All three of these orientations follow directly from the previous discussions in the Council on the measures necessary to restore consumer confidence. They are also based on the opinion of the Scientific Steering Committee.
I intend to present proposals within the next several days on all of these issues to the Standing Veterinary Committee. They will of course result in further controls and potentially very significant costs.
It is surely a matter of very great regret that this determination to tackle BSE has taken so long to emerge. Only seven months ago, the Commission failed to obtain a qualified majority to ban brain and spinal cord from food for human consumption and animal feed. Equally, not all Member States implemented the ban on the feeding of meat and bone meal to ruminants in a satisfactory manner.
I would like to return to the proposals which the Commission will put to the Standing Veterinary Committee.
Mechanically Recovered Meat
The Commission will shortly consider a proposal to ban the use of mechanically recovered meat from all bones of ruminants of all ages. There is a case that material from bones other than the skull and vertebral column, or from bones of young animals, is safe. However, this involves important control problems. In the circumstances, a total ban is necessary.
I might add that the use of mechanically recovered meat is increasingly repugnant to consumers. The processed meat industry has also called for a ban. The proposed measure should, therefore, be very welcome to both industry and consumers.
The Commission will propose that ruminant fats to be included in animal feed should be pressure cooked, in addition to the current requirement that they be ultra-filtrated. The Commission will equally act on the opinion that such ruminant fats should only be sourced from discrete adipose tissues when fed as milk replacers to calves.
We also need to reflect, however, if these changes can be properly enforced. For example, might there be control problems in distinguishing between different fats? If so, is there a need for an outright ban on the use of ruminant fats in ruminant feed? If so, how do we ensure that the replacement fats are safe?
One final point on the issue of ruminant fats. It is surely incredulous to the public that there should be higher standards relating to the use of ruminant fats in animal feed than applies to their use in food for human consumption. However, that is the current situation. I intend to put this right.
The Commission intention is to require removal of the vertebral column where there are doubts over the effectiveness of the ban on meat and bone meal or whenever it cannot be demonstrated that animals are highly unlikely to be incubating BSE. This is in keeping with the opinion of the Scientific Steering Committee.
Again, however, there are important issues which need to be addressed. Where should the vertebral column be removed? If it is done at the abattoir, the most easily controlled location, there are implications for the storage and transport of beef carcasses. There are also risks of microbiological handling due to the increased handling involved.
If, instead, removal is required at the butcher or retail outlet, there will be control problems in the recovery and destruction of the bones.
Similarly, we need to be aware of the impact on consumers. A strict implementation of the scientific committee would require removal of vertebral column in animals aged over 12 months, as is currently the case in France. This will entail a ban on certain cuts of meat which are very popular - T-bones and bistecca fiorentina, for example.
Finally, which Member States should be exempt from the requirement? Should, for example, Member States like Austria, Sweden and Finland which continue to be BSE-free be exempt? These are all issues which the Commission is urgently considering and will address in its proposal.
I hope that these observations serve to highlight the very complex issues which arise from what might appear, at first sight, to be a relatively simple measure.
I am aware that the issue of controls is of concern. In this respect, the replies of Ministers to my letter of 4 January is re-assuring: all Member States now insist that they are giving top priority to the secure implementation of BSE related measures. The Food and Veterinary Office will continue its programme of inspections in this regard.
As a further incentive to improve compliance, I am considering a proposal in the very near future to require Member States to present monthly reports on their implementation of BSE control measures. The UK and Portugal are already required to provide such a report under the restriction measures on their exports of beef. I believe it has been invaluable in ensuring that controls are actively implemented. It should, therefore, be replicated at the Community level.
Thank you for your attention.