UK Government to change
The UK Government today announced the start of a managed transition towards the lifting of the OTM rule and its replacement with a system of robust testing of cattle for BSE.
The main public health protection measure - the removal of specified risk material (SRM), which is estimated to remove over 99% of infectivity in cattle - has been and will continue to be rigorously enforced by the Meat Hygiene Service.
The Over Thirty Month (OTM) rule currently imposes an automatic ban on older cattle from entering the human food chain.
The incidence of BSE has been declining since its peak in 1992 and has now fallen by over 99%. The numbers of new clinical cases detected are also at the lowest level since recording began.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has advised that the current control measures are no longer proportionate to the risk.
An essential first step will be the establishment of a robust and independently audited testing regime. Only cattle for which there is a negative test result will be sold for human consumption.
The science of vCJD remains imprecise. The FSA risk assessment concluded that it would however be consistent on the basis of the risk involved for the Government to lift the OTM rule if a robust testing system was in place. That is why further work is needed to establish a robust and independently quality-assured testing regime, taking into account the significant recent failures to test casualty animals.
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett said:
"Protection of public health remains the Government's priority. It is encouraging that the BSE epidemic in cattle has declined to its current low level, but we must remain vigilant and ensure that strict controls remain in place.
"A process of stakeholder engagement will now take place and the views of the FSA and CMOs will be an important part of this. The final switch-over will not happen until the FSA has advised that the testing system is robust.
"This decision follows our successful efforts towards eradicating BSE in UK cattle. We will be developing a robust testing system. We will also be working in Brussels to ensure that beef from UK cattle born on or after 1 August 1996 can be exported as soon as possible after it becomes eligible for sale in the UK."
Health Secretary John Reid said:
"This Government has always put protection of public health at the forefront when dealing with BSE. That is why we have kept stringent controls like the Over Thirty Month Rule in place. Having weighed up all the factors and taken careful account of the advice of our experts, we now consider it appropriate to begin a managed transition towards a system of BSE-testing, which will replace the Over Thirty Month Rule.
"Those who operate and oversee all our BSE controls have a very important job to protect the consumer. The OTM Rule will not be replaced until Ministers receive assurance from the FSA that the new testing regime for older cattle is able to operate to the highest standards. This means addressing my concerns about recent testing failures."
Any changes in the domestic OTM rule are unlikely to come into effect until the latter half of 2005. Changes in export restrictions are not expected to come into effect until late 2005.
Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the FSA, said:
"The FSA has commissioned the best available independent scientific advice on BSE risks. We have also consulted widely and examined the evidence, acknowledging the uncertainties, in an open and transparent way. The FSA has advised that replacing the OTM rule with BSE testing is proportionate because of the very low risk to consumers and the effectiveness of other controls. Ministers have now accepted that advice."
"However this is still subject to there being a robust BSE testing system for cattle born on or after 1 August 1996 in place and the Agency has set up an independent group to advise on this. It will also be important to engage stakeholders in the work of this independent group. Once its work is done, the Agency will advise Ministers on the robustness of the testing system. "
The Over Thirty Month Rule has led to three quarters of a million cattle being rendered and incinerated every year. Cattle born on or before 1 August 1996 will remain permanently excluded from the food chain.
BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986. More than 183,000 cases have been
confirmed in the UK to date, of which more than 95% were detected before 2000.
The epidemic peaked at an annual total of more than 37,000 clinical cases in
1992 and the number of new clinical cases is currently at the lowest level
since recording began. There were 186 clinical and 425 cases detected through
testing in 2003. It is clear that there will be a further sharp reduction in
2004. As at 15 November there have been only 73 clinical cases and 113 cases
detected through surveillance this year, the vast majority in cattle born before