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Raw Materials - Key Issues - BSE

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is one type of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) which has recently been found in cattle. Spongiform encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease, which causes microscopic holes in the brains of affected animals. The animals become uncoordinated, nervous and eventually die.

The precise cause of BSE and its method of transmission have not yet been scientifically proven, but it is assumed to have been caused by the feeding of infected mammalian meat and bone meal to cattle in animal feed. Following this hypothesis and banning the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to cattle has led, in UK, to a significant and continuing fall in the number of cases of BSE in cattle and this option is recommended in the rest of Europe to control the future incidence of the disease. BSE contaminated meat and meat products are assumed to be the cause of the development of new variant Creutzfeld Jakob Disease (vCJD) - a spongiform encephalopathy which affects humans; but this also has not been scientifically proven.

All animals known or suspected to be suffering from BSE are entirely destroyed, including the hides.

Additionally, in the UK slaughter schemes were introduced by the Government in 1996 for animals not suspected of suffering from BSE, but deemed to be in potentially high risk categories for example, all cattle over 30 months of age. The objective of these slaughter schemes was to restore consumer confidence in beef and to meet conditions for lifting the export ban on British beef. All animals slaughtered under the schemes are kept out of the human or animal food chains. Consequently, all the carcasses from the animals are either incinerated or rendered and the resulting by-products of tallow and solid waste are then incinerated. The hides of these animals have been made available for tanning into leather, but all untanned by-products have been destroyed.

It should be noted that the BSE agent has only ever been found in the brain, spinal cord and intestines of infected cattle. In countries where there is a high incidence of BSE, these offals, along with other “specified offals,” - tonsils, thymus and spleen - from all cattle should be excluded from the food chain, to remove all possibility of the risk of infectivity. This represents advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and has been followed by the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA, previously MAFF) in the UK.

Even in infected animals, the BSE agent has never been found in hides or skins and the World Health Organisation specifically classifies hides and skins in the safest category of tissues (“no detectable infectivity within the limits of bioassay”).

On the basis of this evidence it is considered that all the hides and skins available to the leather industry - none of which come from animals known or suspected to be suffering from BSE - do not present any risk, in relation to BSE, to anyone handling or using them. Furthermore, during the process of tanning hides and skins to make leather, the hides and skins are subjected to tanning and other strong conditions of processing that would be expected to totally destroy any biological agent such as the material linked to BSE.

Research work carried out in the UK and reported in 2000 has confirmed that BSE can be transmitted to sheep under laboratory conditions, and this has led to some media concern about the future status of the sheep flock. However, DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency have stressed that BSE has never been found to occur naturally in the sheep flock, and that measures already in place in UK abattoirs represent sufficient precautions against known risks.

The eradication measures for BSE in cattle have been so successful, that on 15 September 2005, the Agriculture Minister announced that UK cattle born after 31 July 1996 would be allowed to be slaughtered and sold for human consumption. However, older UK cattle born before 1 August 1996 will continue to be excluded from the food chain

For further information contact UK Leather Federation
tel +44 1604 679955/fax +44 1604 679998.