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Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)

(March 2017)

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 or New Zealand. The World Organization for Animal Health recognises both countries as having a negligible BSE risk status.

What causes BSE?

Most scientists think that BSE is caused by a protein called a prion. For reasons that are not completely understood, the normal prion changes into an abnormal prion that is harmful.

Both vCJD and BSE are not contagious. A person (or a cow) cannot catch vCJD or BSE from being near a sick person or cow.  Milk and milk products do not contain the abnormal prion that causes BSE in cattle.

Controlling BSE

Most beef-producing countries have control measures in place to prevent BSE contaminated beef from reaching consumers. These measures 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-contaminated food.

Under Standard 2.2.1 of the Food Standards Code, only beef and beef 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 establishing new requirements for import of 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 assessment is conducted by FSANZ and includes, when necessary, an inspection in the exporting country. This in-country inspection examines the effectiveness of BSE preventative measures to ensure the beef and beef products intending to be exported to Australia are safe. Since 2010, FSANZ has completed BSE food safety assessment of 13 countries. These assessment reports can be found here. The Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources implements import certification requirements at the border.

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