Select Committee on European Scrutiny Ninth Report



Special Report No. 14/2001 by the Court of Auditors concerning the follow-up on the Court's Special Report No. 19/98 on BSE.
Legal base: Article 248(4) EC
Document originated: 14 September 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 12 October 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 13 November 2001
Department: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration: EM of 19 November 2001
Previous Committee Report: None; but see (19724) 14306/98; HC 34-vii (1998-99), paragraph 8 (27 January 1999) and HC 34-xii (1998-99), paragraph 12 (10 March 1999)
To be discussed in Council: No date known
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


  22.1  Following the announcement in March 1996 of a possible link between BSE and new variant Creutzfeld Jacob Disease, a range of measures was adopted by the Community, aimed on the one hand at protecting human and animal health, and on the other hand at supporting the beef market. These were the subject of the Court of Auditors' Special Report No. 19/98,[50] which traced the origins of the BSE epidemic among cattle, including the various steps taken by the UK once the disease had been identified in 1986. The report also went on to refer to the steps taken by the Community after 1996, and to look in more detail at individual measures, on the basis of whether they were regarded as intended to eliminate the disease, support the beef market, or control production. It concluded that the Community needed urgently to adopt a strategy for dealing with the kind of crisis created by BSE.

  22.2  This follow-up report reviews the measures introduced by the Community since 1998 in order to identify and manage the risk of BSE occurring, being propagated, and posing a risk to human and animal health.

The current document

  22.3  In its report, the Court notes that, up to 31 May 2001, there had been 179,804 confirmed cases of BSE in the UK, compared with 1,738 in other Community countries, and 1,673 world-wide. However, it also notes that UK cases peaked in 1992, whilst the incidence of BSE in the rest of the Community has been increasing since 1996, with cases in the UK in the first five months of 2001 being less than the total reported by the other Member States. It comments that, if this trend continues, it would indicate a significant increase in the reported incidence of BSE in those Member States. The Commission also observes that, as at March 2001, BSE had been recorded in all Member States, except Austria, Finland, Sweden (which have been classified by the Scientific Steering Committee as countries where BSE is unlikely, but not excluded), and Greece (for which there is no geographical assessment).

  22.4  The Court then summarises the Community's BSE strategy as comprising:

  • research into BSE, its origins, and how it is propagated, in order to identify risk-management measures;

  • epidemio-surveillance measures, to identify animals at risk;

  • standards on handling specified risk materials (SRM), to keep the more infective material out of the food chain;

  • standards to ensure that all animal waste is treated;

  • a feed ban;

  • an animal identification system to enable tracing to take place where BSE is diagnosed; and

  • a system to ensure adequate monitoring and enforcement by Member States.

  22.5  The Court also notes that, in addition, the Commission has reorganised its services to separate responsibility for food and veterinary inspection from market management; brought various consultative scientific committees together, with the Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) being charged with oversight; and provided about _50 million for research.

  22.6  The Court points out that no market measures were introduced between its earlier report and late 2000, and that, by mid-2000, the beef market had recovered to the extent that consumption was actually higher than before the 1996-97 crisis, with prices at their highest for five years and no stocks in intervention. However, it notes that a second crisis started in autumn 2000, with BSE cases reported first in France and then in other Member States, leading to sharp falls in both consumption and prices, and to the unilateral imposition by Member States of bans on imports of live cattle and animal products. This prompted the Commission to propose veterinary measures aimed at increasing public health protection, and restoring consumer confidence, together with market measures to reduce beef production and provide support to producers through intervention storage and purchase for destruction or storage schemes. The Court highlights the fact that, although the Commission regards it as more cost effective to destroy animals than to put them into intervention storage, the cost of this latest crisis, estimated at _2.2 billion over the period 2001-06, is nevertheless high, and raises the question of how to re-orient subsidy payments in the beef sector away from production.

  22.7  The Court next summarises the legislative measures taken by the Community to date. It points out that, following the major step in 1994 of banning the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal (MBM) to ruminants, the measures taken had all been under the powers delegated to the Commission. This led to the Commission's proposal[51] in January 1999 for a Council regulation providing a legal framework for the BSE measures passed, which it notes was eventually adopted in May 2001 as Regulation No. 999/2001.[52] This step was complemented by Commission Decision 2000/418/EC[53] of 29 June 2000 on the removal of SRM. This too was adopted only after a long delay, leading the Court to suggest that, where timely action is needed but Member States do not accept the Commission's proposals, consideration needs to be given to whether the Commission should have specific additional emergency powers.

  22.8  Other points mentioned by the Court include:

  • the extent to which the less efficient test used prior to 1999 may have led to an under-reporting of BSE cases in the past, including in those countries, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, which had yet to report any cases;

  • the need for adequate rendering measures, and for the inspection and authorisation of rendering plants and animal feed producers, where it says problems have been identified in most Member States;

  • the need, on the basis of experience in the UK and elsewhere, for adequate enforcement in respect of bans on feeding MBM to ruminants, the control of trade in MBM, and labelling, in order to avoid cross-contamination; and

  • the need for an efficient system of animal identification and registration, in the light of evidence of delays by Member States in setting up a computerised database.

  22.9  The final section of the Court's report deals with monitoring and enforcement, where it notes an improvement in the working methods of the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) and the quality of its reports, accompanied however by concerns over a high rate of staff turnover. It also notes the problems identified, and summarised above, and the courses of action open to the Commission when shortcomings are identified — notably bilateral discussion with the Member States concerned, followed by infringement procedures if necessary, but with no procedure for imposing financial penalties or sanctions relating to veterinary expenditure or market measures because of failure to comply with veterinary legislation. In particular, the Court notes that, although 19 infringement procedures were opened by the Commission in the period 1997-99, only one — France's refusal to resume beef imports from the UK — had been taken as far as the European Court.

  22.10  The Court concludes that the Commission's BSE strategy is basically sound, but that implementation by Member States is "problematic", and that inappropriate delays occurred in the adoption and implementation of key control measures. The Court also suggests that the second BSE crisis in 2000 has to be seen in the context of poor implementation of measures such as the feed ban and controls over trade in MBM and animal feed, with virtually all Member States with BSE having had cases born after the 1994 feed ban. The Court therefore reiterates its concerns about the inability of the Commission to impose action in the face of opposition from the Member States, and about the lack of effective financial sanctions, of the sort available under market measures, when BSE legislation is implemented inadequately.

  22.11  In order to address these concerns, it recommends that consideration should be given to:

  • whether the Commission should have temporary emergency powers when Member States do not agree with proposals aimed at protecting animal or human health, and additional powers to reinforce infringement procedures;

  • the possibility of excluding funding from market measures when non-compliance with Community legislation can have an effect on the beef market and lead to significant extra budget expenditure;

  • how BSE control problems caused by animal movements could be reduced;

  • how to re-orient subsidy payments in the beef sector away from production; and

  • how to encourage extensive and environmentally-friendly farming practices, and the replacement of animal-based protein for ruminants with plant-based alternatives.

The Commission's response

  22.12  In its response, the Commission welcomes the report as providing a fair and objective analysis of the BSE measures introduced since 1998, and says that it has always regarded combatting the disease as a priority needing to be pursued within a coherent strategy. It also says that there is general agreement that the rigorous implementation of the legislative measures taken would provide a very high level of protection against BSE, but that, as regards possible infringement proceedings against Member States, it has to provide a very high burden of proof. As regards the Court's specific recommendations, it points out that the reorienting of subsidies and encouragement of extensification constitute a major part of the measures adopted by the Agriculture Council in June 2001, but that other measures, such as granting it additional emergency powers or withholding financial support, would prove controversial with Member States. However, it adds that it is actively reflecting on what further steps could be taken to improve compliance.

The Government's view

  22.13  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 19 November 2001, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Commons) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Elliot Morley) says that the proposal to grant the Commission additional temporary emergency powers is indeed contentious. In his view, the Commission already has sufficient powers to make legislation, and there would be very considerable political and practical difficulties if new measures were to be imposed without the support of Member States. He also points out that recent legislation in this area provides the Commission with new implementing powers, and that any further changes would need to be considered in the context of a more general review of relative responsibilities at Community and Member State level. The Minister also regards the withholding of financial support in the event of non-compliance as controversial, and says that this should only be a last resort in the context of persistently poor application of Community legislation, or failure to implement scientifically justified safeguard measures.

  22.14  On the Court's other recommendations, he says that, as regards animal movement and identification, the Cattle Tracing System operated by the British Cattle Movements Service is the national cattle database for Great Britain,[54] and the Commission has been invited to approve it. The UK is also participating in discussions on ways to reinforce the identification and registration of sheep. On the support systems for beef, he says that the UK accepts the need to reorient payments away from production and to encourage extensive farming practices, and points out that it will be essential to use next year's mid-term review of the sector to introduce more far-reaching reforms of the beef, and other livestock, regimes.


  22.15  Although this Report is generally less critical of the Community's Bovine Spongiform Encepthalopathy strategy than the one produced by the Court in 1998, it does nevertheless address a subject of obvious importance to the UK, and, for that reason, we are drawing it to the attention of the House. However, for the most part, it deals either with the measures already taken to tackle Bovine Spongiform Encepthalopathy, or with steps which are likely to be the subject of further legislative proposals. We are, therefore, clearing it.

50  (19724) 14306/98; see headnote to this paragraph. Back

51  (19751) 5196/99; see HC 34-xiii (1998-99), paragraph 2 (17 March 1999), HC 23-xxxi (1999-2000), paragraph 1 (29 November 2000), and HC 28-vi (2000-01), paragraph 1 (14 February 2001). Back

52  OJ No. L 147, 31.5.01, p.1. Back

53  OJ No. L 158, 30.6.00, p.76. Back

54  Northern Ireland has a separate database, which received fully operational status in 1999. Back

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