Frequently Asked Questions

This page contains questions and answers about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in animals and its links with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans.

Page last updated: 21 October 2009

These are the most commonly asked questions on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Australia has changed its BSE food import policy for imported beef and beef products, effective 1 March 2010. Under agreed conditions, the policy allows for the importation and/or sale of beef and beef products from countries that have reported cases of BSE in animal herds. Media release: Australia refines its food safety rules for imported beef and beef products
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What is bovine spongiform encephalopathy?

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a progressive, fatal, central nervous system disorder of cattle. It is part of the group of rare, fatal diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) which have been found in humans, sheep, goats, cows, mink, deer, cats and some zoo animals. The term ‘spongiform encephalopathy’ literally means ‘holes in the brain’. The infectious agent is believed to be an abnormal form of a naturally-occurring protein known as a prion.

BSE was first observed in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1986. The number of BSE cases peaked in UK cattle in 1992. Since 1992, the number of cases has steadily declined and now there are only a small number of cases recorded each year. BSE has been reported in cattle in 22 European countries as well as Japan, Israel, Canada and the USA.

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How was BSE spread?

BSE is not a contagious disease and is not spread directly between cattle. Rather, it is a disease that infects cattle through being fed risk material – such as brain and spinal cord - contained in meat and bone meal derived from BSE-affected cattle. The long delay between BSE infection and onset of disease symptoms meant that many animals were infected in this way before the first sick animal was discovered.

As recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), feeding meat and bone meal derived from ruminants (such as cattle, sheep and goats) to other ruminants has been banned for more than 10 years in the UK, most parts of Europe, Canada, the USA and many other countries. Australia has similar bans in place, even though Australia is BSE-free. Information can be found on the websites for the OIE and WHO.

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Do we have BSE in Australia?

No. Australia has not detected any cases of BSE in the Australian cattle herd.

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What is variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease?

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is the rare but fatal human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and was first described in 1996 in the United Kingdom. vCJD is different to other forms of human CJD that are also fatal. According to Mathews (2009) patients typically present with behavioural or psychiatric symptoms at a much younger age than in other forms of CJD and the illness is typically longer. Sporadic (or classical) CJD occurs naturally at a rate of about 1–1.5 cases per million people each year in most countries including Australia.

There have been no cases of vCJD diagnosed in Australia. It is possible that a very small number of Australian cases of vCJD might be detected in the future in people who have eaten beef or beef products from BSE-infected cattle while living or visiting BSE affected countries or who have received blood or undergone medical procedures in these countries.

As of September 2009, a total of 212 cases of vCJD have been notified worldwide:
    166 definite and probable cases in the UK and Northern Ireland;
    25 cases in France;
    5 cases in Spain;
    4 cases in Ireland;
    3 in USA;
    3 in The Netherlands;
    2 in Portugal; and
    1 each in Canada, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
Almost all vCJD cases were acquired through eating beef products from BSE-infected cattle between 1980 and 1996 during the occurrence of a large outbreak of BSE among cattle in the UK. Review of Scientific Evidence to Inform Australian Policy on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs)

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Has anyone in Australia been diagnosed with vCJD?

As at October 2009, no one in Australia has been diagnosed with vCJD. In the years to come, a very small number of Australian cases of vCJD might be detected in those who have eaten beef or beef products while living in the UK.

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What is Australia doing to prevent BSE and vCJD?

Australia has put in place a number of measures to prevent BSE and vCJD:
  • the strict controls and restrictions on imports of live animals, genetic material and animal feedstuffs;
  • the stringent requirements to safeguard the Australian population against exposure to the BSE agent via imported beef or beef products,
  • a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to ruminant animals,
  • a national BSE surveillance program in cattle,
  • the assessment of medicines and therapeutic devices that use bovine (cow-derived) materials during production , and
  • the deferral of blood donations from people who lived in the UK for a cumulative period of six months or more between 1980 and 1996 or who received a blood transfusion or injection of blood or blood products while in the UK from 1980 onwards, irrespective of their length of stay.
To ensure that these measures are well-informed, the situation overseas and in Australia is constantly monitored and advances in science are continually being reviewed.

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What is Australia’s policy on the importation of beef and beef products from countries that have reported cases of BSE?

Australia has changed its BSE food safety policy for imported beef and beef products. The new policy allows the import of certain beef and beef products from countries that apply and are assessed by Australian authorities as being able to demonstrate they have in place, and appropriately monitor, controls necessary to ensure that beef and beef products exported to Australia meet Australia’s requirement that beef and beef products be produced from animals free of BSE.

Australia would, under agreed conditions, allow the importation and/or sale of beef and beef products from countries that have reported cases of BSE.

For more information, visit Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.

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When will this new policy come into effect?

1 March 2010