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Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)

(June 2014)

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a transmissible and fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects cattle. Variant Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease (vCJD), a rare and fatal human neurodegenerative condition, results from exposure to BSE through eating contaminated beef or beef products.

BSE has never been detected in cattle in Australia and New Zealand. The World Organization for Animal Health recognises both countries as having a negligible BSE risk status.

Controlling BSE

Most beef producing countries have implemented control measures in beef production systems to virtually eliminate the risk of human dietary exposure to BSE.

Controls include:

  • a ban on feeding mammalian protein to cattle
  • stringent slaughtering practices that remove high-risk tissues and prevent them from entering the human food chain or stock feed systems
  • import controls requiring incoming live animals, beef and beef products, and animal feeds to meet strict biosecurity and food safety measures
  • the introduction of compulsory rapid screening tests that prevent cattle suspected of having BSE from entering the human food chain
  • surveillance activities to monitor the BSE status of cattle populations.

Protecting our food supply

Since BSE was identified as a major risk to human health in 1996, Australia has had comprehensive arrangements in place to protect consumers from BSE through contaminated food.

Clause 11 of Standard 2.​2.1​ of the Food Standards Code specifies that only bovine meat and meat products derived from animals free from BSE can be sold in Australia. New Zealand has its own regulations in place.

In 2009, the Australian Government announced a revised policy on BSE that established new requirements for imported beef and beef products. Under this policy, countries wishing to export beef to Australia must apply to the Australian BSE Food Safety Assessment Committee for a country BSE food safety assessment. The BSE food safety assessment is conducted by FSANZ and includes, when necessary, an in-country inspection. An in-country inspection examines the effectiveness of BSE preventative measures in the exporting country to ensure the safety of beef and beef products that are intending to be exported to Australia. In addition, the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources implements import certification requirements at the border.

What causes BSE?

The BSE agent, known as a prion, is an abnormal and infectious form of a normal protein that is abundant in the brain and spinal cord. The prion is able to convert the normal prion proteins in the infected animal to the infectious form by changing their conformation. Aggregations of these abnormal prions then accumulate to form plaques causing the microscopic appearance of holes in the brain (sponge-like) which is associated with clinical BSE disease in cattle. The spread of BSE was a result of feeding BSE contaminated meat and bone meal of ruminant (cattle, sheep and goats) origin to cattle.

More information

Information for countries intending to export beef or beef products to Australia

New Zealand BSE information

Status of country BSE food safety risk assessments

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