Swiss export BSE expertise to North America

US consumer confidence has been shaken following the first case of BSE Keystone

Switzerland is sending BSE experts to the United States following the country’s first confirmed case of mad cow disease.

This content was published on January 15, 2004 - 16:30

In a separate development, Zurich-based biotech firm, Prionics, is to supply rapid BSE tests to the Canadian government.

The announcements come a few days after the United Nations praised Switzerland for its efforts to control BSE or mad cow disease, calling it a model for other nations.

The US said that a cow had become infected with BSE on December 23. Since then over 30 countries have banned US beef, and prices have fallen by 50 per cent.

US officials have already quarantined three herds in Washington State and have announced that 450 calves are to be slaughtered.

The Swiss experts - Dagmar Heim, head of the BSE project at the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office, and Ulrich Kihm, former director of the Federal Veterinary Office - will be heading out to the US on January 22.

They are due to spend two days examining the US response to the outbreak and make recommendations.

“In Switzerland, we have had BSE since 1990, so therefore we have quite a lot of experience with the disease,” Heim told swissinfo.

“We not only have the theoretical background, but we also have practical experience, so I think we can assist the Americans in avoiding mistakes,” she added.

Heim said the team would be looking at measures for controlling and fighting the disease, as well as consumer protection. The Swiss form part of an international group of experts that includes members from New Zealand and the US.

Tests for Canada

Last year the same team was sent to Canada to advise on the disease.

The first case in the country was announced in May 2003. Officials have now confirmed that December’s infected cow in the US was imported from a farm in Alberta, Canada.

In response, Canada has announced that it would be expanding its testing programme for mad cow disease to 30,000 over the next five years.

A Swiss firm, Prionics, which produces BSE test kits, said on Thursday that it had been chosen to provide the rapid testing for the project.

Bruno Oesch, chief executive and president of the Zurich-based firm, said he was proud that the company had been chosen.

“Reliable BSE testing is a proven method for monitoring beef supply and boosting customer confidence,” said Oesch in a statement.

Prionics said it hoped the Canadian contract would enable the company to break into the US market.

The company’s tests have been used on 18 million of the 30 million cattle tested for BSE worldwide.

Praise

Swiss expertise in BSE matters has also been recognised by the UN. Earlier this week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) praised Switzerland’s efforts to control mad cow disease.

Andrew Speedy of the animal production and health division at the FAO said the country was a role model for others – despite having had 21 cases of BSE last year.

“BSE was found in Switzerland some years ago and testing was begun immediately,” he said.

“The control measures which we recommend - the ban on meat and bonemeal, the removal and destruction of specified risk materials - was done right from the word go.”

Speedy said that the FAO was working with the Federal Veterinary Office to train other countries in these procedures.

The FAO said this was necessary because the international community was still not doing enough to control the disease.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

Key facts

BSE is caused by defective proteins known as “prions”.
It is one of a number of prion diseases that can jump the species barrier.
Such diseases are incurable and fatal and marked by the appearance of spongy areas of damage ("spongiform lesions") in the brain.
The most common human form of the disease is CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease).

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In brief

Switzerland was the first European country after Britain to register cases of BSE in its cattle.

Various measures have been introduced in Switzerland aimed at controlling the disease, the most recent being a complete ban on animal products in feed for livestock in 2001.

There have been no cases of the human form of BSE, new variant Creuztfeldt-Jakob Disease, registered in Switzerland, but scientists do not exclude them in the future.

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