The proposal, which has been submitted to the bloc's parliament for approval, is the first in a series of recent measures the Commission plans to take in easing BSE controls on beef. Other measures include allowing the sale of UK beef throughout the rest of the bloc.
Food processors were hurt by the BSE scare, which damaged consumption of beef and beef products throughout the bloc. Relaxing the measures might raise confidence in the beef and lead to an increase in consumption.
The recent proposal to allow beef on the bone back in the market is revealed in a draft Commission proposal to raise the age limit at which the vertebral column must be removed from beef.
This is the first proposal related to changing the EU's BSE measures since the publication of the Commission’s plan to relax the rules, published in July.
The proposal was endorsed by member states in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) at a meeting earlier this month.
The agreement is subject to the right of scrutiny by the European Parliament and final adoption by the European Commission in the next two months.
It paves the way for beef on the bone, such as the Italian Fiorentina steak or T-bone steak, to be produced again in the EU.
The draft decision is based on scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It increases the threshold at which the vertebral column of slaughtered cattle must be removed to 24 months from from 12 months.
Since October 2000, the vertebral column has been part of the EU list of specified risk material (SRM). This is the label given to parts considered to pose the greatest risk of BSE transmission.
Under current BSE legislation, processors must remove and destroy all SRM parts from bovine animals over 12 months. The measure was put in place to prevent such parts from entering the food and feed chain.
Due to this, and other stringent risk reducing measures, there has been a significant decline in the number of positive BSE cases detected in the EU over the past few years and the age of those positive cases has steadily increased, according to the Commission.
The positive developments led the Commission to propose possible amendments to the measures in place, with a view to updating them in line with the improved situation.
In April 2005, EFSA published an opinion supporting an increase in the age limit for bovine vertebral column removal, and stating that even up to 30 months could be considered a considerably safe limit.
The Commission proposed 24 months as the most practical age limit to allow the highest safety margin against BSE.
"This threshold may be reconsidered again in the future, if the downward trend in BSE numbers continues," the Commission stated. "The higher age limit for vertebral column removal is expected to have a positive impact on the competitiveness of farmers and meat industries, and to reduce the amount of SRM waste generated in the EU."
There has been a significant and consistent decline in the number of positive cases of BSE in the EU over the past few years. Moreover, the average age of BSE infected animals has risen greatly, and there has been no detected case of BSE in a healthy slaughtered animal under 30 months since January 2001.
The data, based on over 41 million tests since 2000, suggest that any infected cases now detected were contaminated before the stringent BSE rules were put in place at EU level in the 1990s, in particular the ban on meat and bone meal.
The Commission presented the TSE Roadmap in July 2005, outlining possible changes to EU measures that could be taken in the short, medium and long-term. The roadmap proposes the potential easing of certain BSE measures, which can be now considered as unnecessary.
The production of beef on the bone is generally produced from cattle aged 22 to 30 months, and requires part of the vertebral column of the animal to be left in the final cut. Therefore, while there was no actual ban on “beef on the bone” as such, the young age limit at which the vertebral column had to be removed made it technically impossible to produce such specific beef cuts in the EU.
Last month the Commission endorsed the UK's control measures on BSE, opening the door for the resumption of supplies of beef to the rest of the EU by next year.
In its evaluation report the Commission signalled the UK can resume beef exports worldwide by early next year. The relaxation on exports of British beef will give hope to the bloc's food companies that they will have wider access to supplies, possibly bringing down costs.
Under the EU's 1996 rules British beef cannot be exported to the rest of Europe from any animal more than 30 months old. The embargo, in effect since 1996, also prohibits the UK from exporting beef on the bone.
Before the BSE crisis in 1986, the UK's beef exports were worth about £1bn (€1.5bn) compared to £20m (€29m) last year, according to Food from Britain, a consultancy.
The Commission noted that the incidents of BSE continues to fall within the UK. New measures being brought in by the government are gradually bringing the country into line with the EU rules.
For example, the UK put in place a rule to ensure that no animal older than 30 months could enter the food chain. Older animals are considered to have a higher risk of having BSE. As of 7 November 2005, the UK is replacing the rule with a the testing system used in the other EU countries. This means older animals can enter the food chain, subject to a rigorous BSE testing scheme.
Unlike other member states, the UK will continue to permanently ban all animals born before 1 August 1996 from the food and feed chain. This means that at the end of their productive life, these animals must be destroyed. Animals born in the UK after 1 August 1996 are considered to be at no higher risk of developing BSE than animals in other EU countries, the Commission stated.
The incidence of BSE in the UK has fallen sharply to 343 in 2004 from a peak of 37,280 cases in 1992. Most of the BSE-infected cattle were born before 1996. BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986. In total, more than 183,000 cases have been confirmed in the UK, of which more than 95 per cent were detected before 2000.
Other possible amendments include relaxing the total ban on processed animal protein in feed, which was introduced in 1994 and extended in 2001. The Commission also proposes to ove to more targeted testing of animals for BSE or transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), the general name for the disease in all animals, including sheep and goats.
It is also looking at finding alternatives to the current requirement that a whole beef herd must be slaughtered when one case of BSE is detected. The Commission also proposes using country specific measures if some members fall behind in eradicating the disease.
The number of BSE cases in the EU dropped to 850 positive tests for the brain-wasting disease in 2004 from 2,129 in 2002, when the bloc had 15 members compared to the current 25.
As detailed in a previous story by FoodProductionDaily, the number of BSE cases found this year in European countries is falling dramatically, except for Spain.
The BSE epidemic was first recognised in the UK in 1986. At its peak in 1992, a total of 37,280 cases were discovered in UK cattle. So far this year the UK remains at the top of the BSE list, with 66 cases confirmed, indicating that the total for the year could fall by about 60 per cent. Spain has reported 52 cases so far this year, Ireland 37 cases and Portugal 13 cases. Germany and France have so far not reported any incidents of BSE.
Poland reported 11 cases of BSE last year and has so far discovered another 11 cases this year.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, Ireland found 126 cases of BSE in its cattle last year, compared with 137 found in Spain. The UK had the highest incidence of BSE cases in the world last year with 343 cases confirmed, followed by Spain, Ireland. Portugal is fourth in the BSE league, reporting 92 cases in 2004, followed by Germany with 65 cases. France reported 54 cases of BSE last year.
“This first step towards easing EU BSE measures is a positive reflection of how far we have come in the battle against the disease," said Markos Kyprianou, the commissioner for health and consumer protection.