TSE Restrictions Questioned in Brussels

04 March 2009
Scotland's only full member of the European Parliament's Agriculture Committee, Alyn Smith, has committed himself to look into the classification of sheep spinal cord as specified risk material (SRM), leading to the costly practice of "splitting" sheep at abattoirs.

Smith was draftsman of the Agriculture Committee's Opinion on the forthcoming relaxation of certain Animal By-Product rules, which are being relaxed as the science has developed, and is of the view that the rules for sheep should follow suit, if the science has similarly moved on.

Smith spent a day as part of his work experience programme last year working a shift at McIntosh Donald at Portlethen where he saw first hand the mechanics of the issue.

Smith took up this issue after it was raised at two of his "Ask me, tell me, chin me" surgery meetings with NFU Scotland regions, the final meeting in this tour will be in Kirkwall next month.

He has written to the European Commission asking for clarification on the classification of sheep spinal cord as SRM, and lodged a Parliamentary question which explores the possibility of reviewing the current age criteria for the designation of sheep spinal cord as SRM.

The National Sheep Association has recently called for changes to the sheep TSE related controls in the wake of the alteration of the age of compulsory testing for BSE in cattle from 30 to 48 months.

Mr Smith said:

"Top priority is, clearly, maintaining Scotland's top class reputation for producing safe, healthy, local food, as well as in the fields of animal health and welfare. But legislation must match the best science available, and I think we are at the point where it is worth questioning whether the current criteria for TSE controls in sheep are proportionate to the risk. While I will take the science as I find it, it is clear that relaxing the rules would give a real financial boost to the sheep sector, so this is worth looking into.

"With the changes in the rules for the beef sector, and in the pipeline for animal by-products generally, the fact that we are yet to see any suggested changes for sheep looks increasingly odd to me. Whilst we are only too aware of the links between BSE in cattle and vCJD, the theoretical link between TSEs in sheep and human health issues has never been seen outside the laboratory.

"I do not prejudge the outcome of this, but I look forward to some clarification of where the Commission's thinking is on this one and will be sure to push the law as far as reasonable science will allow."

Ian Anderson, of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, said:

"Removing spinal cord from sheep over 12 months of age was introduced as a precautionary measure against the possibility of BSE in sheep causing vCJD in humans. Since then, surveillance has demonstrated that BSE is not present in the national flock.

"In view of this and the substantial, disproportionate costs that splitting of sheep carcases to remove spinal cord imposes on sheep meatproduction, the justification for the current regime needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. Just as the changes to the removal of cattle vertebral column were implemented under the TSE Roadmap the same process should be applied to sheep spinal cord."

The text of the Parliamentary question is below -

In January 2009, the age of compulsory testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in all healthy slaughtered cattle was raised from 30 months to 48 months in 15 EU Member States. It was recognised that this would result in a minimal to negligible increased risk to human health.

However, while there is proven scientific evidence that BSE in cattle does have links to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans, there is yet to be any confirmation that atypical scrapie in sheep is similarly linked. Can the Commission detail if there are any discussions ongoing regarding a revision of the current age criteria for the designation of sheep spinal cord as specified risk material (SRM)? Can the Commission also clarify why the current age limit for sheep spinal cord SRM is set at 12 months?