At the request of the European Commission, the food agency called together an expert group of scientists to examine the community's need to introduce on to the market new rapid tests. At present five rapid BSE test kits are approved by the EC for the routine post mortem testing of slaughtered cattle over 30 months of age.
"It has been recognised that the availability of a rapid test for live cattle would be a major advance in dealing with the problem of BSE and TSE in general, but particularly with regard to epidemiological screening," said the European Food Safety Authority this week.
BSE has affected the entire beef food chain, from producer to consumer. Farmers have watched their animals slaughtered in their thousands and seen their livelihoods jeopardised. A European Association of Animal Production report has estimated the cost of BSE to the states of the 15 member EU at more than €90 billion. In addition, the BSE crisis has had a significant impact on public trust in government and governmental scientific advice.
BSE, a transmissible, neurodegenerative, fatal brain disease of cattle, has been linked to the human disease variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), from October 1996 to November 2002, 129 cases of vCJD were reported in the UK, six in France and one each in Canada, Ireland, Italy and the US.
In the early 1990s BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) ravaged the UK beef industry - from which it is only now starting to recover - with 37,000 clinical cases of BSE and about 60,000 of the highest risk animals entering the food supply, compared with less than one a year today.
EFSA said this week that in the long term an accurate live animal test might offer the possibility to reduce the number of culled animals after the detection of one positive animal.
"A rapid BSE test for live cattle could be approved for the purpose of consumer protection, for epidemiological screening or for both. For the purpose of consumer protection any new rapid BSE test including tests for live animals should not be statistically inferior to that of the currently approved post mortem tests," said the Brussels-based agency, soon to move to Parma in Italy.
EFSA has come up with a protocol for the 'design of a field trial protocol for the evaluation of BSE tests for live cattle for the purpose of consumer protection only.'