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EU may tighten BSE controls

BSE among cattle under 30-months of age is causing concern  

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Compulsory testing for mad cow disease among young cattle and a possible curb on the sale of T-bone steaks are being considered by European ministers.

EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne told the European Parliament's agricultural committee on Tuesday that the brain wasting illness, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), presented a crisis across Europe.

Mad cow disease has killed thousands of cattle across Europe and is believed by scientists to be linked to the human form of the ailment Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The EU has already recently imposed an universal testing scheme on animals older than 30 months destined for the food chain as well as a six-month ban on meat-based livestock feed.

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But Byrne said these were "the very minimum necessary to begin the process of re-building consumer confidence in beef."

In a separate move Israel said on Tuesday it was banning imports of beef and sheep by-products from Europe to prevent the spread of BSE.

Europe's Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler also told the committee that the EU executive had to use the next six months to examine if it was feasible for the ban on meat-based feed could be made permanent.


He said there were international trade problems associated with a permanent ban, which could land the Commission in a similar situation with the World Trade Organisation to the one it has with its ban on U.S. hormone-treated beef.

Byrne said the recent detection of BSE in cattle aged under 30 months was particularly disturbing, which clearly pointed to cattle being given contaminated feed, even though the practice of giving mammalian MBM to ruminants has been banned across the bloc since 1994.

"The discovery of BSE in such young animals also raises the question of whether the age limit for testing should be reduced from the current requirement of 30 months.

"While it remains the case that cases of BSE are overwhelmingly in older animals (99 percent of cases are over 30 months) we must aim to ensure that as few infected animals as possible enter the food chain."

He said the EU executive would respond to an opinion from its top scientific committee last week that the vertebral column -- and as a result T-bone steaks, mechanically recovered meat and untreated animal fats -- could present a BSE risk.

He promised a response within a week that would be "both responsible and proportionate."

France and Italy have already banned the T-bone over fears that the mad cow disease prion can be harboured in the nervous tissue connected to vertebrae.

But Byrne described the scientists' opinion on the vertebral column as problematic as it highlighted a risk only where there were question marks over the effectiveness of the ban on meat and bone meal.

"The performance of member states in applying this ban varies very considerably," he said, but added that his proposal would aim for a "very high level of protection from the associated risk."

Israel's Dr Herbert Zinger from the ministry's veterinary division said its ban on European meat would also cover products such as gelatin, preservatives containing beef or lamb, animal plasma and ground bones.

An Israeli trade official said he expected the value of the goods banned to be quite small because of Jewish dietary regulations.

Zinger added the ban followed an earlier one on canned meat from European countries that came through Israeli ports but were destined for the Palestinian market.

The Palestinian Authority said earlier this week it would require importers to obtain special licenses and adhere to guidelines as part of an effort to crackdown on meat that could infect people with BSE.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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