4 December 1998

Suspicions voiced that BSE is under-reported in EU

By Philip Clarke

BSE is being under-reported in several member states as they try to hang on to their disease-free status.

That was the claim of scientists, vets and politicians at this weeks joint European Parliament/EU Commission conference on Lessons to be learned from the BSE crisis in Brussels.

Most outspoken was Tito Fernandes of Lisbon Universitys vet school in Portugal, a country which has just had its beef exports banned due to the escalating number of BSE cases.

"How can we believe any countrys claim to be BSE-free when there is no way of ensuring the efficiency of diagnostic methods applied or even the completeness of reporting suspect cases."

One of the reasons Portugal was experiencing a surge in BSE cases, (from 30 last year to 80 this year), was that the government had raised the level of compensation to three times the market price at 300,000 escudos (£1035) a head, encouraging farmers to be more open. And, despite pressures from some parts of the food chain, Portuguese vets had the knowledge and courage to declare all cases, said Prof Fernandes.

"Although no cases of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have been reported in Portugal, we do understand the present embargo. But we do not agree with its discriminatory nature. There are only two countries with BSE under control (the UK and Portugal), since countries that fail to report cases are not necessarily free of the disease."

Other delegates endorsed his theme. Philip James of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, said the EU as a whole had underestimated the level of exposure to the BSE agent, while consumer representative Caroline Naett said it was "surprising" that BSE seemed to stop at certain national borders.

German MEP and organic farmer Friedrich Baringdorf attacked national governments for failing to implement an EU-wide ban on specified risk materials, flying in the face of advice from scientists, vets and the commission.

The general failure of member states to enforce EU laws on BSE controls was also raised by many speakers. The fact that 13 out of 15 had been subject to infringement procedures from the commission was described as "a scandal" by German MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt. "There are still member states that will not learn the lessons. They delay all they can and are happy to point the finger at others."

Consumer affairs commissioner, Emma Bonino, expressed her dismay at the lax approach of some countries. "But I cannot achieve miracles," she said. "I can step up the number of checks. But the data we receive is the data we have to work with. I cannot accuse member states of lying. I cannot challenge their official documents."