We extended an existing back–calculation model to analyse data on reported clinical cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), data from random testing of healthy animals slaughtered in abattoirs and testing data from animals reported as sick or dying on the farm. Extensive analysis of demographic data was also undertaken. We estimated past and current BSE infection prevalences in the cattle population and the degree of case under–ascertainment resulting from excess mortality in cattle near to disease onset. Ongoing levels of human exposure to BSE infectivity were also estimated, together with the effect on these of a range of possible exposure–reduction strategies that might replace the current rule banning tissue from cattle over 30 months (OTM) of age from the human food supply. While any policy change that allows a wider age range of animals into the human food supply will increase levels of human exposure to infectivity, the risk posed by such increases is small by comparison with historical exposure levels. Making the pessimistic assumption that there will be 5000 deaths during the variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD) epidemic in total, our analysis indicates that replacement of the OTM rule with testing would result in 0.04 additional vCJD deaths over the next 60 years. However, there is substantial (more than 40–fold) uncertainty surrounding this estimate, the sources of which are discussed.