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The madness within
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 12 - 2000


By Nyier Abdou
It must be pretty hard for British farmers not to feel pretty smug these days. At the apex of Britain's devastating eruption of so-called mad cow disease, the country's beleaguered agricultural and health ministries could have used a little help from their friends. But Britain became the leper of the European community and despite the European Commission's insistence that the crisis was one shared by all, Britain was forced to muddle through on its own.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) first appeared in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s. In 1996, it was discovered that the disease -- which typically causes cows to lose their coordination and show signs of senility -- could be linked to the invariably fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). The European Union moved quickly to ban all British bovine meat products from exportation and the country suffered an apocalyptic public health crisis. By late 1998, more than four million cattle had been slaughtered and destroyed and beef sales plummeted exponentially. To date, 84 people have died of vCJD, 81 of them British, and two new cases were announced in Britain this week.
Latent outrage erupted last year when the EU partially lifted its ban on the import of British beef products. France, which prides itself on its strict food safety measures, refused to lift its ban and an all-out food war ensued. French consumers sniffed that health and safety must come first, but after years of hanging their heads in shame, Britons were invigorated with a new sense of pride. Beef industry stalwarts, like Germany, snickered on the sidelines, polishing their self-awarded BSE-free medals, and shrugged off an EU call for Europe-wide measures to control the spread of the disease.
For years, experts have been suggesting that the disease is spread among cattle by ingesting recycled animal parts from infected animals. Ground up meat and bone meal (MBM) is often used by farmers as a protein supplement, but certain animal tissue -- known as specified risk materials (SRM) -- are more likely to transfer the disease. Despite this direct link, many EU member countries refused to impose a ban on MBM products from entering the food chain. Until recent weeks, Germany was still leading a fierce opposition to the ban on the premise that SRMs were only being fed to animals that are not affected by BSE.
Little reminders that BSE was looming over Europe continued to rattle European governments, but the overwhelming response was one of determined recalcitrance: BSE is a British problem. We don't have mad cows here. The panic button was finally pressed last month, however, when it was revealed that a French supermarket chain was forced to pull beef from its shelves due to possible contamination. Consumers went mad with fear and beef sales tumbled by almost 50 per cent. No amount of PR could mitigate this catastrophe, not even French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin publicly relishing a fat, rare steak. In a rush of poetic justice, France now faces a potential EU ban on its beef products and several countries, among them Austria, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain, have independently imposed partial bans on French beef.
Enraged French farmers are still claiming that their beef is the safest in Europe -- tough talk from a country that has reported 125 cases of BSE this year, up from only 30 last year (the increase is generally attributed to the implementation of more thorough tests). The French farming industry has launched a media blitz aimed at calming consumer fears, but the thoroughly unnerved public isn't buying it; in the absence of T-bone steaks (banned in France since last month), demand for ostrich, and even bison meat has leaped. French farmers have been found blocking Dutch and Belgian meat from entering France in their own protest of the countries' choice to boycott French beef. The French government announced a $400 million package of emergency aid last month, but farmers have scoffed that this isn't nearly enough.
Ironically, the safest beef in Europe is probably to be found in England, where dire measures were forced on mulish officials by the EU ban. Tough restrictions have made it impossible for BSE-infected meat to enter the food chain. No MBM is used in animal feed and all suspect herds were slaughtered (weakening the knees of animal rights activists and vegetarians everywhere). Of utmost importance, however, is that since August 1996, no animal over 30 months of age has entered the food chain. This cut-off falls well before the age when animals can develop mad cow disease or pass it on, even if they are already infected. Why all European countries did not impose the same restrictions is probably a question many farming ministers are banging their heads over right now.
Paranoia was rampant when it was discovered in recent weeks that cases of BSE had originated in Spain and Germany -- both countries that have so far been spared. Last week, the Ukrainian government announced the deaths of two cows from BSE, the first cases in the former Soviet bloc. In an emergency session last month, the European Commission drew up a drastic plan of action that would involve the slaughter of up to two million cattle, ban MBM from all animal feed for six months and impose rigorous tests on animals that are at risk of BSE. After six months, further tests will be imposed on healthy animals as well.
EU agriculture ministers meeting last Monday in Brussels unanimously approved the measure, but outside countries have caught whiff of the scandal and new bans from Iran and Egypt are already in force. Yet even with such a bleak outlook being projected, countries like Sweden and Finland -- still BSE-free -- were grumbling that the measure was unjustified and unfair, primarily because of the exorbitant cost the restrictions will incur. Scandinavian officials could find themselves in the unenviable position of German Agriculture Minister Karl-Heinz Funke, who this week was preaching the need for the feed ban to be extended indefinitely with the righteousness of a life-long believer. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, equally devout, was also back-pedalling furiously when he urged the EU Commission to pull together an even tougher proposal. With the cat out of the bag, leaders meeting at the EU summit in Nice this week agreed to set up an independent food safety agency that would oversee health issues across the EU.
Is Britain having the last laugh? One would think so, but in fact, the spread of mad cow panic into formerly sanctimonious nations has only served to further engender resentment toward the English meat industry, where the crisis began. Fingers have to be pointed somewhere, however, and no European leader in his right mind is going to nominate himself.
Related stories:
Beef bad
Related sites:
The BSE Inquiry
Mad Cow Disease web site
UK Ministry of Agriculture BSE page
Human BSE Foundation
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