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Europe: Britain Launches Inquiry Into Mad Cow Disease 'Disaster'

London, 23 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is to stage an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the emergence of 'mad cow' disease, or BSE, and its human equivalent, Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which has been linked to contaminated beef products.

A new variant of Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) has been blamed for the deaths of 22 Britons, most of them young adults, who are believed to have eaten BSE-infected beef.

Agriculture Secretary Jack Cunningham said yesterday that a judicial inquiry will review the history of BSE and the new variant of CJD, and action taken by government officials since last year, when the probable link between the two was announced. The new variant of CJD causes a rare but fatal human brain condition, which is similar to Alzheimer's Disease.

A lawyer, representing the families of the young victims who have died, said the independent inquiry is welcome, as it will "give an opportunity for the entire history of this disease to come out."

The announcement comes just three weeks after Britain banned the sale of beef on the bone -- including T-bone steaks, ribs and oxtails -- after new evidence showed there is a slight risk that BSE could get into the human food chain from infected bones.

The British beef industry is already reeling from other bans on the sale of its products, and from a 40 percent slump in beef prices over the past 18 months which has endangered the livelihood of thousands of people in the farming and food industries.

BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was first identified in British herds in 1986. Subsequently, the government banned animal feed made from minced-up sheep and cows -- identified as the likely cause of unsteadiness and brain damage among cattle.

A BSE-type brain disease has also been identified in sheep, as well as in a cat and a pig believed to have eaten contaminated feed.

Britain has recorded by far the largest number of cases of BSE among cattle of any European country -- a total of 170,000.

However, BSE cases have fallen sharply from a peak of around 37,000 in 1992, to 3,250 so far this year. There are predictions the disease will die out among British herds within three years. The decline has been hastened by the destruction since May, 1996, of 1.8-million cattle more than 30 months old (older animals are most likely to have the disease). Last year, the European Union banned exports of British beef worldwide. And, Britain's campaign to get this ban lifted has encountered strong opposition from its European partners, particularly Germany. This resolve has stiffened since British scientists themselves called for the surprise new restrictions on the sale of boned beef.

However, the continental European countries themselves now have problems with BSE. Ireland and Switzerland have reported the biggest number of cases of infected cattle at about 260 each. Portugal has reported 84, France 29 and Germany six. The cost of the beef affair, the biggest agricultural crisis in living memory, is astronomic. Agriculture Secretary Cunningham said yesterday Britain has spent almost 6,000-million dollars in the past two years on the slaughtering program, and in support for farmers. He said there is now an oversupply of beef throughout Europe, and a long-term decline in consumption. He called for a radical restructuring of the beef sector, possibly using EU early-retirement schemes to take farmers out of production.

Critics of both Conservative and Labour governments say politicians have overreacted, because the chance of contracting the new variant of CJD is statistically tiny. But, government scientists defend their restrictions on beef herds, saying it is better to be safe than sorry.