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EU: Agriculture Ministers Struggle With Animal Health Crises

European Union agriculture ministers failed to agree on measures to contain the spread of "mad cow" disease at a meeting last night in Brussels. The EU Commission wants to widen the slaughter of beef cattle in its fight against the illness, but that plan is meeting resistance from member countries. At the same time, the outbreak in Britain of another animal disease, hoof and mouth, has led that country to halt all exports of live animals, meat, and dairy products. Around the EU, anguished farmers say they face financial difficulties as markets collapse.

Prague, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is now struggling with two simultaneous crises in agriculture -- BSE, or mad cow disease, and a more recent outbreak of hoof and mouth disease.

A wide spectrum of meat-producing farm animals are involved. The deadly BSE -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy, to give it it's full name -- affects cattle and is thought to produce a fatal variant in humans.

Hoof and mouth, which so far has been contained within Britain, preys on cloven-hoofed animals, like sheep and pigs, and is generally not dangerous to humans.

At a long and difficult meeting in Brussels yesterday, the European Union's 15 agriculture ministers failed to come up with a common policy on measures to contain the spread of BSE.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler said the Union's Executive Commission wants to slaughter an additional 1.2 million head of beef cattle in its fight against the disease. But officials say some EU members, including Denmark and Germany, reject the destruction of more cattle.

Today, Fischler's spokesman, Gregor Kreuzhuber, appealed for member states to bridge their differences. He told journalists:

"Whether you destroy meat or store meat, that's not popular. But sometimes, especially in a crisis situation, unpopular decisions have to be taken, and usually according to the procedures in the EU it is the commission which has to take the blame. And we have no problem with that, but one has to be reasonable, there must be a certain solidarity among at least those members most severely affected by the drop in beef consumption."

The ministers were also trying to work out measures to support farmers who are financially hard hit by the collapse of the European beef market. The commission, however, has said that direct aid to affected farmers on a national level can be authorized only in exceptional cases.

Meanwhile, on hoof and mouth disease, the British delegation explained the countermeasures they have taken to present its spread. When the first cases were discovered last week, the British government imposed an export and internal movement ban on animals and animal products.

In London, the chief dairy adviser of the National Farmers Union called for calm in the face of the new hoof and mouth outbreak. The adviser, Phillip Hudson, told RFE/RL:

"Let's not panic here, because panic won't help in terms of trying to halt the spread of the disease. But we have to be very cautious, very aware, and for the time being it's important that the general public stay out of the countryside [in Britain], so that they do not contribute to the spread of the disease further."

Hudson notes that, given the discovery of cases of hoof and mouth across Britain from Northumberland in the far north to Devon in the southwest, the disease is likely to spread further around the country. That, in turn, will further strain the fabric of British farming life, already hard-hit by years of declining incomes.

The two animal health crises, with their profound economic implications as well as consequences for human well-being, are leading to a rethinking of modern high-pressure farming methods. In Brussels, Commissioner Fischler has already announced increased support for biological farming techniques. The German government has also announced a "greener" agricultural production policy.

David Santillo, a scientist with the Greenpeace laboratories at the University of Exeter in Western Britain, urges what he calls a "fairly fundamental rethink" of the present systems of agricultural production. In a telephone interview with our correspondent, Santillo noted the way both BSE and hoof and mouth spread from their initial locations. He says this shows that animals are transported long distances, including internationally, under the present meat marketing system.

"If anything positive can come from this -- and obviously our feelings are for the livelihoods of the farmers involved and also for the lives of the many animals that have had to be sacrificed -- if anything positive can come from it, then it will be a recognition that the globalization and industrialization of farming has been part of this problem."

Santillo pleads for a return to a simpler pattern of food production, including a greater reliance on local husbandry. That, he says, would reduce much of the long-distance transport of livestock and thus help curb the territorial spread of diseases.