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Dairy products in Mediterranean sheep populations: quantification of scrapie risk

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Sheep milk, scrapie-free

When consumers perceive a food as unsafe, demand for the food can drop as in the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) revelations of the 1990s. A European project, Riskscra, has put together comprehensive guidelines for sheep milk producers and the industry as a whole to offer a scrapie-free assurance for ovine milk products.


Sheep milk production is an important part of the dairy products industry in Mediterranean countries. The dairy sheep industry is based on local breeds adapted to the production methods and environment. Experimental evidence has indicated that BSE is transmissible from cows to sheep through oral and parenteral (other than through the alimentary canal) means. Abnormal prion proteins (PrPs) have been found in the mammary glands of sheep with mastitis and scrapie. The fear is that the scrapie may actually be BSE. The genetics of scrapie resistance is known inasmuch as the ARQ/ARQ genotype is susceptible to some forms of scrapie and experimental BSE. Presence of the PrP also determines a sheep′s resistance or susceptibility to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). Genetic selection is used as the main means of scrapie control in the United Kingdom. Along with initiatives from European institutions to promote TSE resistance in livestock, the EU-funded project Riskscra aimed to develop tools to assess the risk of scrapie in milk. Guidelines and recommendations can be applied by breeders and the dairy industry. Suitable genetic analysis methods for routine control purposes were researched and drawn up into document form for dairy technicians. 'Guidelines to set up traceability in cheese making factories with associated scrapie risk level' integrates International Advisory Group (IAG) dairy production rules and regulations on PrP allele profile control. Specific training courses were also held for dairy technicians. To make sure that the results of relevant research reach all levels in the sheep dairy production industry, Riskscra organised cooperation between all players and coordination of national and European policies. Networking of research teams was actively encouraged, particularly by bringing European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in contact with research centres. The results of this initiative also promise to establish a border-free zone for research and create more jobs in the research sector. Guidelines developed by Riskscra can be used to implement safety or commercial strategies from scratch as well as to improve existing control systems. The Riskscra control system is particularly relevant to producers, breeder organisations and other institutions interested in controlling the scrapie risk in sheep dairy products. A prime example of appropriate use is its application to the current milk payment criteria based only on non-scrapie–related criteria such as milk quantity and bacterial content. Improving the quality of dairy products on the market increases the confidence of consumers and constitutes a basis for fair competition among dairy industries across Europe, again with added benefits for consumers. In addition, it enhances European competitiveness on the global market.

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