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EU: Danger Of BSE Spread Eastward May Be Growing

European Union Agricultural Commissioner Franz Fischler has announced an emergency $1 billion plan to help EU farmers facing financial difficulties because of "Mad Cow" disease, or BSE. Among other things, the plan contains measures to encourage less intensive and more environmentally friendly farming practices. That's because intensive, industrialized methods are thought to have contributed to the spread of the disease. But while the EU is spending a great deal of money dealing with BSE's consequences within its borders, there is a risk the disease will spread eastward -- and Central and Eastern European countries are mostly ill-equipped to assess and deal with the threat. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "Mad Cow" disease, or BSE (for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), is no respecter of borders. Its sudden and unexpected appearance in Germany late last year shocked both the country's officials and its public, who had been confident that existing animal-health measures formed an adequate defense. That was not the case, and BSE's appearance in Germany illustrates the slow but steady eastward movement of the disease since it first struck Britain in the 1980s.

So far, Central and Eastern Europe has mostly been spared. But the risk factor appears to be increasing. Just this week an expert's report said it's likely that BSE is present in Lithuania because the Baltic state had been importing live cattle and meat-and-bone-meal feed from affected areas in the EU.

Lithuania's state Food and Veterinary Service agrees there is a risk. The service's director, Kazimieras Lukauskas, was quoted (by Reuters) as saying that a lack of resources has hindered thorough testing to detect the disease. He said he was worried that, due to a lack of laboratories, not all slaughtered cattle could be checked.

Lukauskas' service has asked for more money to improve testing. But it's the same story across most of the Eastern region: lack of resources is hampering monitoring efforts. A senior virologist at Poland's National Veterinary Research Institute near Lublin, Tadeusz Wijaszka, tells RFE/RL:

"First of all, we do not have enough money to test all our animals and prove it. You know only testing could prove that we [in Poland] do not have any BSE and so far we have tested only 5,000 animals. But we are expecting to get some help, maybe even from the European Union, and our government is also thinking to use a special budget reserve for that."

Wijaszka said that Poland, like Lithuania, had imported live animals as well as meat-and-bone-meal feed from the EU. But he said Polish documentation showed that the meal was fed only to pigs and poultry, not to cattle -- thereby excluding risk to Polish beef from that source.

As testing of cattle progresses -- and if no infection is revealed -- Poland would like to receive the classification of a "low-risk" country for BSE. Wijaszka said with this in mind, Warsaw will this month hand over to EU authorities a dossier on what is being done.

An EU Commission spokeswoman for consumer protection, Beate Gminder, tells our correspondent that Brussels is keeping in touch with Eastern candidate-states and other eastern neighbors on the question of BSE risk assessment. She says:

"What we are actually doing is we are evaluating the risk status of third countries and that is a scientific evaluation we have also done for our own member states. We are expecting first results at the end of March. It's basically a study which is done in cooperation with the country concerned, and it evaluates the trade in meat-and-bone meal and live animals between them and the United Kingdom and other EU member states which have BSE."

The EU gives some development assistance to the veterinary services of candidate countries under existing aid programs. Gminder says Brussels does not plan for extra financial support to the Easterners for BSE detection and prevention. But she says that is "something which is certainly going to be discussed."

Already the EU agricultural budget is under severe strain to pay for various counter-measures used to fight BSE. Apart from that, thousands of farmers fear for their livelihoods following the heavy fall in demand for beef, particularly in Germany. Eastern European farmers are also being penalized because of a general public caution about eating beef.

The cost in terms of human life is also set to grow. So far, more than 80 people have died in Britain and two in France from the human form of BSE, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Some medical experts predict the death toll will rise sharply in coming years, as the disease's long incubation period matures.

The crisis has also led to a fundamental rethinking of the high-pressure farming methods which are held to have contributed to the outbreak. Agriculture Commissioner Fischler's emergency plan announced this week includes financing for ecologically oriented methods, such as the organic production of fodder crops like clover, and it also contains disincentives to graze animals too intensively per hectare of land. Fischler said:

"We have foreseen [in this package] another possibility, namely above all to make biological farming more attractive. [And to this end] biological farmers will be give exclusive rights to bring into use fallow land to grow clover crops. To restate the matter, this is a packet of measures designed to overcome the [BSE] crisis."

Ironically, the Eastern countries may be comparatively in a stronger position in terms of eco-farming than their Western European counterparts. That's because their antiquated agricultural sectors never became so dependent on the saturation use of modern pesticides and fertilizers as did farmers in the West. Polish veterinarian Wijaszka says:

"For sure it's more healthy -- if you look at consumption of fertilizer, all the pesticides and herbicides -- in Poland, that consumption is very low, so that automatically the food produced has less chemical content."

Yields of course are less under low-intensity farming. For instance, grain production in Poland may be only a third of the level of EU production per hectare, but only a third of the chemicals are used.