Topics A-Z

BSE and other Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs)

BSE and other Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs)
Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) are a family of diseases that affect the brain and nervous system of humans and animals. The diseases are characterised by a degeneration of brain tissue giving it a sponge-like appearance. TSEs include Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats as well as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD) and other diseases in humans.

BSE was first diagnosed in the UK in 1986. It became first a European then a global problem linked to the inclusion of animal proteins produced from infected animal tissues in animal feed. Epidemiological studies indeed suggest that the source of BSE was cattle feed prepared from animal tissues, such as brain and spinal cord that was contaminated by the BSE agent.

EU regulatory framework

Since 1989, the European Commission in close co-operation with EU Member States has taken a series of measures to manage the risk of BSE and other TSEs in the European Union. There is now a large body of EU legislation in place to protect humans and animals from BSE and other TSEs.

The main measures include:

  • A ban on using animal proteins in feed given to animals farmed for food production.
  • A comprehensive surveillance system, including post-mortem testing of healthy and at risk animals over certain ages.
  • Compulsory removal and destruction of tissues containing the highest risk of BSE infectivity, such as the brain and spinal cord (Specified Risk Material) from bovine animals over a certain age.
  • Following the detection of a positive BSE case, destruction of the carcass and culling strategies for herds with confirmed BSE cases.

The specific EU legislation covering BSE and other animal TSEs is Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 which gathers together all the measures on animal TSEs adopted in the EU. This Regulation is constantly updated by the European Commission that uses EFSA’s advices as the main scientific basis for this purpose. The European Commission adopted in 2005 a strategic document – the TSE Roadmap - which outlines possible future changes to EU measures on animal TSEs in the short, medium and long-term.

More information on risk management measures - European Commission, DG Health and Consumers.

EFSA’s role and activities

EFSA’s role is to provide scientific advice to risk managers on all animal health and public health related aspects of BSE/TSEs. Most of EFSA’s work is based on requests from the European Commission in the context of the TSE Roadmap. The Commission uses the Roadmap and EFSA’s advice as a basis to discuss with other EU institutions, Member States and stakeholders the measures that should be implemented in the EU with regard to BSE/TSEs, as well as to propose or amend legislation in order to maintain a high level of protection of European consumers.

EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) manages this work, which is coordinated and supported scientifically by the BIOHAZ Unit. The BIOHAZ Panel relies on the advice of leading experts in all aspects of TSEs, ranging from epidemiologists to pathologists/neuropathologists as well as experts in TSE diagnostic tests.

EFSA has published scientific advice on different aspects related to BSE and TSE. A number of recent examples illustrate these:


  • Analytical sensitivity of approved TSE rapid tests
  • BSE risk in bovine intestines used for natural sausage casings
  • Monitoring of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle in the first 15 countries to join the European Union
  • BSE related public health risks of certain animal proteins in animal feed
  • Age limit for the removal of Specified Risk Material (SRM) in cattle

Other TSEs

  • Analytical sensitivity of approved TSE rapid tests
  • Statement on a research protocol prepared by the TSE Community Reference Laboratory (CRL) for additional data collection to support possible breeding for resistance to scrapie in goats in Cyprus
  • Genetic TSE resistance in goats in Cyprus
  • TSE risk from small ruminants' milk
  • Consumption of young sheep and goats coming from TSE affected flocks

In the past EFSA was also responsible for assessing the Geographical BSE Risk (GBR) of countries. GBR classifies countries worldwide according to their level of risk by assessing the likelihood and level of BSE presence in the domestic cattle population. This system assisted in controlling EU imports of ruminants and derived products. EFSA has carried out GBR assessments for 20 countries , including the United States of America, Canada, Australia, Mexico and Brazil. Given the global impact of BSE, since 2007 the Commission approaches the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) for advice on the classification of BSE risk in different countries. EU Member States, EFTA countries and third countries are now categorised in EU legislation according to the outcome of the OIE assessments.

The BIOHAZ Panel is also involved in preparing the protocols for the evaluation of new TSE rapid tests, including ante and post mortem tests to detect TSEs in animals. Moreover the panel is involved in the different steps of this evaluation procedure in collaboration with the Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Reference Material and Measurements of the European Commission.

For more information

Scientific Documents  
Scientific Opinion on Analytical sensitivity of approved TSE rapid tests

Published: 18 December 2009  Adopted: 10 December 2009

Scientific Opinion on BSE Risk in Bovine Intestines

Published: 22 September 2009  Adopted: 10 September 2009

Genetic TSE resistance in goats

Published: 24 March 2009  Adopted: 5 March 2009