The discovery of the first case of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad-cow disease) in the United States in December 2003 highlights the need for countries to strengthen their BSE control measures, FAO said in a statement issued today.
"When it comes to prevention, the situation is still confused," FAO said. To reassure consumers will require more than the minimum action to be taken by countries. It will require better controls and more surveillance and testing.
In many countries, BSE controls are still not sufficient and many countries are not applying the recommended measures properly. There is also a considerable risk of further introducing infectious materials, given the global trade in animal feed and animal products.
FAO said that no country can claim to be BSE-free, unless this claim is validated through internationally recognized survey methods.
FAO urged governments and industry to carry out a proper risk assessment and to keep risk animals and materials out of the food chain and to strictly apply the following preventive measures:
* ban the feeding of meat-and-bone-meal to farm animals, at least to ruminants;
* strictly avoid cross contamination in feed mills;
* remove and destroy SRMs (Specified Risk Materials: brain and spinal cord, etc.) from cattle over 30 months;
* ensure safe practices in the rendering industry, i.e treatment of the material at 133ºC under 3 bar pressure for 20 minutes;
* apply active surveillance measures within the cattle population and accurate identification of animals and traceability throughout production, processing and marketing;
* ban the use of mechanically removed meat.
With these control measures in place, especially with the feed ban and the removal of SRMs, the risk of BSE infective material being present in the food chain is extremely low, FAO said.
The Office International des Epizooties (OIE) 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 3000 and the US about 20 000 animals, a higher number than suggested by the OIE.
Testing must be targeted and effective, FAO said. Additional tests should be carried out on all animals that have died or are killed other than by routine slaughter.
If BSE is known to be present and control measures have not yet been strictly applied, a wider testing programme is called for, FAO said. Testing of all slaughter cattle over 30 months is a measure to enhance consumer confidence.
To reassure its consumers and to find as many BSE cases as possible, the European Union tested over 9 million animals in 2002/3, with France and Germany testing nearly 3 million each. Switzerland tested 170 000 animals and Japan tested virtually every cow (500 000).
Testing costs are estimated at around $50 per animal. Considering the potential damage of BSE outbreaks to human health and meat markets, testing can be considered cost-effective, FAO said.
If the control measures in the feed, meat and rendering industries are in place and implemented effectively, the risks of infective material in the food chain are very low, even in countries where the disease is present.
To help countries to implement stricter controls, 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.
This training project 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.