Fourteen cases of ‘mad cow disease’ were picked up in Northern Ireland cattle last year through government surveillance programmes.
Another three cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy — or BSE — have since been confirmed in fallen cattle in Northern Ireland this year.
All cases were found in cattle over 48 months of age, the Department of Agriculture said.
DARD has just launched a consultation on plans to raise the age of BSE testing to 48 months. At present, all healthy slaughtered cattle aged above 30 months and all cattle above 24 months deemed to be at risk of catching BSE must be tested.
Under the new plan, all cattle over 48 months of age — either being slaughtered for human consumption or fallen stock — would have to be BSE tested.
The change in testing age must first be agreed by the Food Standards Authority Board and health ministers before it can be implemented in the UK.
Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies are fatal, degenerative brain diseases which include BSE in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.
Up until April this year more than 163 people have died in Britain of new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD), believed to have been a form of BSE transmitted to humans who eat the brain or spinal cord of infected animal carcasses.
A British inquiry into BSE concluded that the epidemic was caused by cattle being fed the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal. Between 460,000 and 482,000 BSE-infected animals had entered the human food chain before controls on high-risk offal were introduced in 1989. More than 179,000 cattle were infected and 4.4m slaughtered during a massive eradication programme.
The plan to change the UK’s BSE surveillance programme follows a draft European Commission decision allowing older EU member states to increase the age above which all cattle must be tested.
“This age was determined on the basis of advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” a DARD spokesman said.
“BSE will remain a notifiable disease and cattle of all ages reported as suspect clinical cases must continue to be tested. Controls on Specified Risk Material (SRM) eg brains and spinal cord, which are the key controls to protect public health, will remain as currently, as will controls on animal feed which are the key controls to protect animal health.”
The consultation will run from October 31 to December 3 and can be viewed on DARD’s website. Copies of the consultation are available from TSE Branch, Room 714, Dundonald House, Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 3SB. Telephone: 028 9052 4289.
Comments must be received by the department no later than December 3.
“The short consultation period is necessary to meet the EU’s expected timetable and allow the possibility of applying these proposals from January 1, 2009,” the spokesman said.