(ENS) ROME --
discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in December 2003 underlines the need for countries to strengthen their control measures for the fatal disease, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said January 12. The agency warned of the "considerable risk" of spreading infectious materials around the world, given the global trade in animal feed and animal products.
Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a deadly brain-wasting disease spread by the consumption of infected bovine nervous system tissue by cattle or humans.
The infectious agent is believed to be prions -- abnormally shaped proteins that originate as regular components of neurological tissues in animals -- they are not cellular organisms or viruses. These proteins occur as a normal part of an animal's nervous system tissue, but they can become abnormal and deformed in a process not completely understood by scientists.
Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by these proteins, such as meat and bone meal that contains nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.
The FAO warned that no country can claim to be BSE free, unless this claim is validated through internationally recognized survey methods.
"When it comes to prevention, the situation is still confused," the agency said. In many countries, BSE controls are still not sufficient and many countries are not applying the recommended measures properly.
The FAO urged governments and industry to ban the feeding of meat and bone meal to farm animals, at least to ruminants, and to strictly avoid cross contamination in feed mills.
Governments must ensure that the meat handlers remove and destroy specified risk materials such as the brain and spinal cord from cattle over 30 months, the agency said. The use of mechanically removed meat must also be banned to ensure safety.
The rendering industry must ensure safe practices such as treatment of the animal material at 133 degrees Celsius under 3 bar pressure for 20 minutes.
Application of active surveillance measures within the cattle population is important, the FAO advised, and urged accurate identification of animals and traceability throughout production, processing and marketing.
Testing must be targeted and effective, the FAO said. Additional tests should be carried out on all animals that have died or are killed other than by routine slaughter.
With these control measures in place, especially with the feed ban and the removal of specified risk materials, the risk of BSE infective material being present in the food chain is "extremely low," the agency said.
The Office International des Epizooties (OIE), the Paris based World Organization for Animal Health, recommends first testing cattle that show BSE symptoms and testing one in 10,000 to one in 100,000 of the cattle population over 30 months.
On this basis, Australia tested about 400 animals per year, Canada about 3,000 and the United States about 20,000 animals, a higher number than suggested by the OIE.
The OIE said in a statement on Friday that its basic code, "The OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code" describes conditions for the classification of countries into one of five BSE risk categories -- free, provisionally free, minimal risk, moderate risk and high risk.
The OIE itself does not assign countries to all these categories. These are used by importing countries when determining the specific conditions for trade.
In the past few weeks, the OIE said, it has been 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."
So far no country has been given such recognition by the OIE. Presently, the OIE does not give an opinion on the other three categories.
The OIE does address trade conditions for meat commodities through an increasing degree of restrictions according to the risks presented. For example, fresh meat may be imported safely from a country of any BSE status but with increasing restrictions so that, for countries presenting a high BSE risk, more severe measures are applied to the cattle from which the meat was derived and to the meat itself.
But some commodities should not be exported even from countries presenting a low BSE risk, the OIE says. For example, meat and bone meal, or any commodity containing such products, which originate from countries with minimal, moderate or high BSE risk should not be traded.
Regarding the BSE situation in the European Union and the more recent BSE cases in Japan, Canada and the United States, the existence of valid up-to-date standards did not prevent major trade disruptions due to a failure by many countries to apply the international standard when establishing or revising their import policies.
The OIE expressed "particular concern" that many countries slapped trade bans on beef exporting countries as soon as they reported the first case of BSE, without conducting a risk analysis as described in the code.
"Such situations penalize countries with a good and transparent surveillance system for animal diseases and zoonoses, and which have demonstrated their ability to control the risks identified," the OIE said.
"This may result in a reluctance to report future cases and an increased likelihood of disease spread internationally."
To reassure consumers about beef safety, the UN food and agriculture agency advises a testing program that is as wide as possible. The FAO pegs the cost of testing at around $50 per animal, but says the result justifies the cost.
"Considering the potential damage of BSE outbreaks to human health and meat markets, testing can be considered cost-effective," FAO said.
To reassure its consumers and to find as many BSE cases as possible, the European Union tested over nine million animals in 2002/3, with France and Germany testing nearly three million each. Switzerland tested 170,000 animals, and Japan tested virtually every cow -- about 500,000 animals.
To help countries to implement stricter controls, the FAO is carrying out training projects in several countries and facilitating cooperation between Switzerland, which has successfully dealt with the BSE crisis, and countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.
Training targets not only inspectors and laboratory personnel but also those involved in the feed and meat industries, so that they are trained in good practices which minimize the risks throughout the food chain.
If the control measures in the feed, meat and rendering industries are in place and implemented effectively, the FAO says the risks of infective material in the food chain are very low, even in countries where the disease is present.
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