The discovery of the first case of BSE - bovine spongiform encephalopathy - in the US in December 2003 highlights the need for countries to strengthen their BSE control measures and reduce risk, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a statement this week.
"When it comes to prevention, the situation is still confused," added the United Nations body.
Reassuring a concerned consumer can only come about with better controls, more surveillance and testing, stressed the group.
"Countries that have already been exposed to BSE - for example the UK - have since applied good preventitive measures," an FAO spokesman told FoodNavigator.com. Other countries also exposed to the disease - such as the Czech Republic, Japan, Israel and Poland - are coming on board, added the spokesman.
And there are many other countries that can not afford to be complacent. Essentially, the FAO believes that no country can claim to be BSE-free, unless the claim has been validated through internationally recognised survey methods, a status possible through clearance by the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) - the World Animal Health Organisation.
"The Code (the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code) contains standards, guidelines and recommendations to be used by national veterinary authorities to prevent the introduction of infectious agents pathogenic for animals and humans into the importing country during trade of animals and animal products, while avoiding unjustified sanitary barriers," said the OIE group this week.
While the code describes conditions for the classification of countries into one of five BSE risk categories, the OIE itself does not assign countries to all these categories.
However, the OIE has been recently requested to examine country submissions, made on a voluntary basis, for determining whether they meet the conditions to be officially classified by an OIE decision as 'BSE free' or 'BSE provisionally free'.
"For the moment the OIE does not give an opinion on the further three categories existing in the Code. So far no country has been given such recognition by the OIE," stressed the animal health body this week.
As such, the FAO urged governments and industry this week to carry out a proper risk assessment and to keep risk animals and materials out of the food chain by applying a range of measures, including a ban on the feeding of meat-and-bone-meal to farm animals, at least to ruminants and removing and destroying SRMs (Specified Risk Materials: brain and spinal cord, et al) from cattle over 30 months old.
"Testing of all slaughter cattle over 30 months is a measure to enhance consumer confidence," said the FAO.
Learning from bitter experience following the BSE cases in the UK that saw over 100 people dying from variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human equivalent of mad cow disease, the European Union tested over 9 million animals in 2002/3, with France and Germany testing nearly 3 million each. Switzerland also tested 170 000 animals.
According to the FAO, 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 concluded.
Since the mad cow case was identified in Washington State last month, the US cattle industry has seen $3 billion in annual export sales slashed as countries around the world immediately put up barriers to US beef imports.