Cost-cutting measures could mean an end to current BSE control measures, with the over 30 months (OTM) rule replaced by BSE testing.
The UK Food Standards Agency will meet this week to evaluate the value of a system that costs the taxpayer £360 million a year, and to date £3 billion. Alternative BSE testing measures could reduce this figure to £60 million a year.
The OTM rule, in place since 1996, does not allow cattle over 30 months old to enter the food chain. The regulation was set up after bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, hit cattle in the UK. BSE is a progressive, lethal central nervous system disease that has been attributed to the human disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) - 137 vCJD cases have so far been reported in the UK.
Since the OTM rule was introduced, BSE has continued to decline and additional controls have been brought in that have been effective in removing BSE. The new control of testing cattle for BSE before they enter the food chain is much less costly, said the FSA this week.
The BSE testing has been evaluated and is used throughout the European Union.
The OTM rule is one of the three main controls that prevent BSE from cattle getting into food. The rule does not allow cattle over thirty months old to enter the food supply. This is because BSE has mostly been found in cattle over 30 months old.
The main BSE control measures are the removal of specified risk material (SRM), which removes over 99 per cent of BSE infectivity that may be present in cattle. The third measure is the ban on feeding meat-and-bone meal to farm animals.
The FSA began a review of the OTM rule in July 2002 by setting up a stakeholder group whose recommendations were considered at a public meeting in March 2003 and whose final report has been subject to a three-month consultation throughout the UK.
Changes in BSE rules run the risk of consumer criticism, wary of the BSE threat to public health. But according to the FSA, any of the possible changes could mean less than one additional vCJD case over the next 60 years. The worst case could be about two-and-a-half additional cases over the next 60 years.
In a bid to reassure the consumer, Sir John Krebs, chair of the FSA commented this week: "Variant CJD is a terrible disease and in reviewing the controls the agency has to ensure that public health is effectively protected. With the continual and steep decline of BSE in the UK the Agency has undertaken a major public review of replacing the over 30 month rule with BSE testing, underpinned by a thorough, science-based risk assessment."
Under the current proposals, OTM cattle born after 1996 would be allowed into the food chain, after being tested for BSE, from January 2004, but complete replacement of the rule would not take place until July 2005.
More than 20 million cattle have now been tested throughout the European Union and 600,000 cattle in the UK.