BSE and other Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

Cattle, sheep and goats are susceptible to a group of brain diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The best known of these diseases is bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle, it is also known as BSE or mad cow disease.

There are strict controls in place in the UK to protect people from BSE. The Food Standards Agency monitors these controls and publicises any breaches, as well as the actions taken to prevent further failures.

Although no sheep in the UK flock have been found to have BSE, there are a number of precautionary safety measures in place since it has been shown under laboratory conditions that sheep can be infected with BSE. The Agency continues to review and support research into TSEs in animal species used for food.

The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) TSE risk assessment subgroup provides independent expert advice on TSEs to the FSA and other departments.


The European TSE Regulation 999/2001 (as amended) sets out the requirements for TSE monitoring, animal feeding and the removal of specified risk material.

The corresponding legislation in the UK is:

The Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (England) Regulations 2010 (SI No. 2010/801)
The Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (Wales) Regulations 2008 (SI No. 2008/3154(W.282) (as amended by SI 2008/3266 (W.288))
The Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (Scotland) Regulations 2010 (SSI 2010/177)
The Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010 (SR 2010 No. 406)

How is BSE being controlled in the UK?

The Government has had in place a range of measures to reduce the risk of people eating beef or meat products that might be infected with BSE since the late 1980s. These control measures have been revised from time to time based on current scientific knowledge.

The key food safety control is the removal of specified risk material, however there are also controls on animal feed and a requirement to test certain categories of animal for BSE. In addition to these controls, cattle with BSE or suspected of having BSE and the offspring and cohorts of BSE cases are removed from the food chain.

Specified Risk Material (SRM)

SRM is the parts of cattle, and sheep and goats most likely to carry BSE. All SRM must be removed in either the slaughterhouse or cutting plant. The SRM must be stained and disposed of and does not go into our food or animal feed. In cattle, the SRM controls are estimated to remove almost all potential infectivity in the unlikely event of an animal infected with BSE, but not yet showing any clinical signs, being slaughtered for human consumption.

The European TSE regulation defines specified risk material as follows:

Specified risk material in all member states
Cattle All ages
  • The tonsils, the intestines, from the duodenum to the rectum, and the mesentery;
Over 12 months
  • Skull excluding the mandible but including the brains and eyes, and spinal cord.
Over 30 months
  • Vertebral column, excluding the vertebrae of the tail the spinous and transverse processes of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the median sacral crest and the wings of the sacrum, but including the dorsal root ganglia .
Sheep and goats All ages
  • The spleen and the ileum
Over 12 months (or permanent incisor erupted)
  • Skull including the brains and eyes, tonsils, spinal cord.

Feed controls

Animal feed containing meat and bone meal is thought to have been responsible for the spread of BSE among cattle. A ban on the feeding of meat and bone meal to ruminants was introduced in the UK in 1988. In August 1996 this was extended to cover the feeding of meat and bone meal to all farm animals. EU Regulations now prohibit (with certain exceptions) the use of processed animal protein in feed to all livestock.

The following controls are in force across Europe:

a prohibition on the use of mammalian protein in feed to ruminant animals
a prohibition on the incorporation of mammalian meat and bone meal in any farmed livestock feed
a ban, except in tightly defined circumstances, on having mammalian meat and bone meal material on premises where livestock feed is used, produced or stored

BSE testing

Cattle aged over 72 months at slaughter (O72M) must test negative for BSE before being allowed into our food if born in one of the following EU member states:

Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Cattle born in any other country must be tested if aged over 30 months.

Mechanically Separated Meat (MSM)

In the past, products such as low-cost burgers, sausages, pies and mince included mechanically separated meat (MSM). This is residual meat that is stripped from the bone by mechanical means at high pressure. The consumption of these products made from cattle infected with BSE is thought to have contributed to vCJD occurring in humans.

The production of MSM from the bones and bone in cuts of meat from cattle, sheep and goats has been prohibited for several years.

How are controls enforced the in UK

The FSA has inspection staff in all slaughterhouses and cutting plants to monitor compliance with the requirements of the European and domestic legislation. Every carcass is subject to a final inspection before being health marked as fit for human consumption.

The Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) of the European Commission, operates a rolling programme of inspection to ensure compliance with the EU requirements in member states.

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