According to research published earlier this week in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, researchers at Imperial College London believe there will be around 70 future cases of vCJD arising from the consumption of BSE-infected beef. At most this could rise to a total of around 600 deaths, although they suggest this is unlikely.
BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is a transmissible, neurodegenerative, fatal brain disease of cattle linked to the human disease variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) that has struck more than 100 people in the UK alone.
Work by the UK scientists follows on from a UK study in 2003 that looked at tissue from appendectomies (appendix removals). The researchers found a higher prevalence of vCJD than expected from clinical data alone, indicating that around 3,800 individuals in the UK could test positive. But since 2000 there has been a decline in the number of clinical cases reported.
"One reason for the discrepancy between the high estimated number of positive tests and low number of actual recorded clinical cases could be that many infected individuals do not go on to develop clinical disease in their lifetime," said Dr Azra Ghani at Imperial College London.
There have been 148 deaths from new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) since the condition was first seen in 1995.
Deaths have been declining from their peak of 28 in 2000 to nine last year.
BSE ravaged the UK beef industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s and producers are only now starting to recover from the outbreak that at its peak saw 37,000 clinical cases of BSE and about 60,000 of the highest risk animals entering the food supply, compared with less than one a year today.
Red meat consumption (beef, pork and lamb) in the UK has rebounded to pre-BSE levels with consumers eating 43.2 kilos per year, per head, or a total of 2.6 million tonnes. In 1996, at the height of the BSE crisis, consumption dipped to 2.3 million tonnes.
In October last year Brussels committed €188 million to food safety issues in the Union linked to animal diseases, signing off the largest slice for eradication of mad cow disease.
The majority of the budget, €98 million, will go towards tackling BSE.
"Healthy animals are the key to safe food. Today's decision reflects our on-going commitment to supporting pro-active monitoring, preventative action, and disease eradication," said David Byrne, then EU commissioner for health and consumer protection.
BSE cost the EU-15 more than €90 billion, a situation that Brussels is keen to avert a second time. The new budget, rising by some €41 million on 2004, for TSEs will aim to boost consumer confidence in Europe's beef industry to bring more revenue into the sector.