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BSE: No absolute certainty for the consumer

26/2000, 28.11.2000

Anyone wishing to avoid a residual risk, must keep away from meat right now

Given the diagnosis of BSE in a cow from Schleswig-Holstein and the suspected disease in a cow from Germany in Portugal, consumers accept a residual risk when they eat beef. Anyone wishing to avoid this risk should, according to the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine, BgVV, Berlin refrain from eating beef and beef-containing sausages until the open questions concerning the routes of infection have been answered.

The BSE case in a German cow was discovered following the application of the BSE rapid test last week in Schleswig-Holstein. The results of more than 10,000 tests already conducted in the past on sick and older animals were negative. Further BSE cases are, however, to be expected once the tests are used on a more widespread scale. The Schleswig-Holstein BSE cow was born after the entry into force of the ban on meat and bone meal in animal feed. The first reaction in Germany will be the entry into force of an extensive ban on meat and bone meal in animal feed for all productive livestock.

Against the backdrop of these results the risk for the consumer must be reassessed. According to the current level of scientific knowledge the situation is as follows:

  • German cattle may also be infected with BSE.
  • The test methods used at present can only reliably detect the infection in animals which are at least 30 months old and in which the disease is already well advanced.
  • Negative test results for younger animals are not reliable.
  • In principle, the consumer should avoid risk material (brain, spinal cord). Since 1 October 2000 they must be removed from sheep, cattle and goats and disposed of.
  • In experiments no infection could be triggered with the muscle meat of sick animals.
  • Milk and dairy products are still deemed to be safe from the scientific angle. Infection experiments were negative.
  • The use of risk material in medicinal products and cosmetics has been banned since 1998. Further safety measures are to be observed during their production.
  • More than 90% of gelatines, according to the producers, are produced from pork rind. Gelatine production methods are aggressive and do, according to scientific opinion, also guarantee the safety of cattle gelatines. The starting materials may only come from edible animals.
  • According to the manufacturers, no risk material was used in the production of baby food in Germany in the past either. Meat should be taken from especially selected animals of known origin.
  • Meat from pigs, poultry and fish can be deemed to be safe in terms of the BSE risk according to the current level of scientific knowledge.
  • Sheep may develop a form of BSE-like scrapie. Scrapie is well-known wherever sheep are farmed. Cases do occur more frequently in England. As long as scientific questions about the possible links between scrapie and BSE remain unanswered, consumption of mutton will be associated with a residual risk which cannot be assessed scientifically.
  • The question has still to be answered whether the feeding of animal meat and bone meal is the cause of the incidence of BSE in German cattle herds.
  • The German production method is still deemed to be safe from the scientific angle. The current feed ban was issued for reasons of precautionary consumer health protection.
  • BgVV assumes that there is a causal link between BSE and the new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The definitive scientific evidence has yet to be supplied. In Germany this variant has not been diagnosed up to now. The official case numbers of the classical variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob have been stable in the last few years.


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