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EU: Ministers Agree On Measures To Combat 'Mad Cow' Disease

EU agriculture ministers have agreed on what they term "sweeping measures" to stop the spread of so-called "mad cow" disease in Europe. Recent outbreaks in French and German cattle have undermined public confidence throughout the EU and sent beef markets plummeting. Our Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas has the report:

Brussels, 5 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- After nine hours of intense negotiations lasting until the early morning hours today, European Union agriculture ministers agreed on a set of measures aimed at restoring public confidence in the European beef industry.

Public confidence, as well as the EU's beef markets, have been badly undermined by the appearance of a spate of new cases of "mad cow" disease in European cattle. The disease is also known as BSE, the acronym for "bovine spongiform encephalopathy." (Refers to the fact that the brain of the afflicted animal comes to resemble a sponge-like substance.)

It is now generally agreed that BSE can cross what scientists term the "species barrier" and affect human beings in the form of what is known as a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease, or CJD.

More than 80 people have died of this form of CJD in Britain, which had a serious outbreak of BSE in the 1990s. In recent months, the first such CJD cases have been diagnosed in both France and Ireland.

Reports of incidences of BSE and CJD in France this autumn caused beef consumption to fall by around 40 percent. Prices of live cattle fell by around a quarter in both France and Germany, which combine for about 50 percent of the EU's total.

Last week, the Commission proposed a set of drastic measures aimed at curbing the incidence of the disease.

Today, EU Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler welcomed the swift action of EU agriculture ministers, who yesterday and early this morning approved most of the Commission's proposals:

"Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary responses and European problems call for European responses. This principle is especially true for BSE. Consumer confidence in beef is severely shaken by the recent events, and the European beef market is in a crisis."

The most important among the Commission proposals, now endorsed by EU member governments, was the ban on the use of meat and bone meal -- that is, reprocessed animal waste -- in all animal feed. The use of such reprocessed waste as feed is widely considered responsible for the spread of BSE. It was banned in cattle feed in the EU in 1994.

Last Wednesday (Nov 29) , EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer protection David Byrne said the ban was not reliably enforced by EU member states.

"There has been concern, as you probably know, in my mind for some time as to the controls relating to meat and bone meal and animal feed. You know that it's banned for feeding to ruminants, and in particular cattle. Up to now it has been permissible to feed to pigs and poultry. I was not convinced that the controls in place in member states were sufficient to ensure that the ban on feeding that material to cattle was being fully implemented."

The problem is especially serious in France, which has seen more than 100 new cases of BSE-tainted cattle this year. A recent inspection report published by the European Commission says meat and bone meal is still widely fed to cattle in France.

The ministers also decided to ban the use of cattle older than 30 months in human food. Such cattle can only enter the human food chain when individually tested. Meat from old cattle is deemed more likely to harbor the disease.

Before wide-scale testing becomes possible, the Commission estimates up to 2 million cattle more than 30 months old must be destroyed in EU member countries. Farmers will receive compensation from EU and member-states' budgets.

The measures take effect on January 1, and will run for six months, when the Commission will reassess the situation.

Experts say it is too early to say what how effective the measures will prove. Some say the EU might be on the brink of a new BSE epidemic. This seems borne out by the fact that Britain -- which was the first EU country to experience a serious BSE epidemic -- has seen more than 177,000 cases of the disease.

France, which currently leads in terms of new BSE cases, has so far recorded only about 180 confirmed cases.

Fears of a continent-wide epidemic seem also substantiated by the fact that while Britain has not had a single case of BSE since 1996, Germany, Denmark and Spain all recorded their first incidences of BSE this year. They joined a long line-up of EU countries which all have seen cases of BSE. Only Finland, Sweden, and Italy have recorded no cases of native BSE.