Enforcement of BSE controls: Commissioner Byrne answers parliamentary question

February 7, 2002

Strasbourg, 6 February 2002

Verbatim report for 5 February, Part 2

Byrne, Commission. - Madam President, I am very encouraged by the recommendations in Mr Olsson's report and his support for the Commission's approach in this. I want to thank him for this report. His extensive experience in this area is evident from the detail and the high quality of this report, and I thank him for that.

There is too little time available to speak of the recommendations that the Commission can support. I would like, therefore, to concentrate on those recommendations with which we differ or where there appear to be differences within Parliament itself. The recommendation to reduce the age of testing of bovines to 24 months is an example of this. Almost eight million tests were carried out last year on healthy animals aged over 30 months. The youngest positive case in these animals was aged 41 months. This suggests that there is no immediate urgency to lower the current age limit. However, the situation will remain under review.

Another issue where there is some confusion is in relation to the Commission action in cases of poor implementation of BSE measures by the Member States themselves. I have gone on record repeatedly to the effect that the existing enforcement mechanisms, namely the infringement proceedings, do not have sufficient teeth.

The Commission's intention is to present a proposal to the Council and Parliament shortly on food and feed controls. This proposal will fundamentally review the inspection systems in the Member States. In the process it will also propose much stronger action, including stronger sanctions, which many of you have referred to as having been contained in Mr Olsson's report.

The question of financial penalties in the case of fraud or serious malfunctioning of a national control system is being considered in this context.

The incidence of BSE in the Community gives mixed signals. The total number of cases in 2001, excluding the UK, is likely to be in the region of 1,000 cases. This is more or less double the 482 cases registered in 2000. However, most of this increase was due to the impact of the generalised testing of healthy and at-risk animals with the newly available rapid tests.

In addition, frankly, Member States that previously were not looking very hard for BSE have now learned their lesson and have hugely improved their surveillance efforts. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement in the area of implementation, as the reports of the FVO consistently highlight.

Another continued difficulty is the problem in the Member States in coping with the huge volume of meat and bonemeal which must be destroyed. The Commission has actively reminded Member States of their obligations to respect Community law in this regard and I would refer to a number of contributions from Members of the House on this matter, and would draw your attention to the fact that there is legislation in place relating to this issue which must be complied with by Member States.

Finally, the continued uncertainty over the possible presence of BSE in sheep is also of concern, and many of you referred to this. A decision was taken only last week to substantially increase the level of testing for TSEs in sheep. This will provide a much better picture of the potential problem facing the Community if the presence of BSE in natural conditions is ever confirmed in sheep.

So, I greatly welcome this opportunity to respond to Parliament's initiative in the report. It is only a little over a year since the most recent crisis peaked. We have made a lot of progress in the mean time. At this stage I should summarise the key measures that have been put in place. First of all, the use of meat and bonemeal in animal feed has been suspended.

Testing for BSE has been introduced for all healthy animals aged over 30 months and for at-risk and casualty animals over 24 months. The list of SRMs has been extended, notably to include the vertebral column and the entire intestine of bovines, and mechanically recovered meat from the bones of ruminants has been banned.

There has also been very important progress on the legislative front. Regulation No 999/2001 on TSEs was finally agreed and entered into force on 1 July 2001. Very good progress has also been made on the animal by-products proposal, with the question of how to deal with catering wastes as the main obstacle to final agreement. The agreement also on the open declaration of animal feedingstuffs and on the Food Safety Authority will also greatly strengthen the overall framework in relation to TSEs.

Turning to imports from third countries, there are already a comprehensive series of measures in place under the TSE Regulation and its implementing provisions. The FAO has undertaken a series of inspection missions in the candidate countries in recent weeks and months. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay will also be visited shortly.

The reports on these missions are now coming on stream. It appears that while there has been some progress, further important efforts are still required to achieve full compliance in these countries. I am very concerned that they should not repeat the mistakes of the Member States in their handling of the BSE problem.

The Commission will be actively calling on the countries concerned to take urgent corrective action. I also intend to raise the matter in the meeting of the Agriculture Council with the candidate countries scheduled for next month.

Let me conclude by thanking Mr Olsson for his report. I want to assure Parliament that the Commission's attention remains firmly fixed on TSEs. I am insistent that there will be no complacency. I know that Parliament will continue to keep a close eye - rightly - on eradicating this disease.

There were a number of points raised by Members that I would like to refer to.

In the UK there is now testing of all bovines born between August 1996 - the date of MBM ban - and the end of 1997. The youngest positive test was found at 41 months. That is in respect of eight million tests of healthy animals.

I should emphasise that there is no question ever of lifting the ban on the feeding of meat and bonemeal to ruminants. That ban is in place and will remain so. There is no debate concerning that issue.

Verbatim report of proceedings, 5 February 2002

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