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Europe: Specter Of Hoof-And-Mouth Reaches The Continent

Hoof-and-mouth disease reached the continent from Britain this week, with cases confirmed on farms in northwest France. There is concern that an epidemic could spread across Western and Eastern Europe, infecting millions of animals. The European Union has acted to contain the outbreak, but many countries have already banned meat and animal imports from the Union. The spread of hoof and mouth disease follows closely another EU farming crisis -- "mad cow" disease, or BSE, which also started in Britain. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke brings us up-to-date.

Prague, 15 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The news came like a message from a war front, heavy with foreboding. The chief administrator of France's northwestern district of Mayenne, Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, made the announcement:

"This morning, we had the first results which show that, unfortunately, blood analysis is positive and that we are facing the first clear outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease detected in Mayenne and in our country [France]."

That means the highly contagious hoof-and-mouth virus has reached the continent from Britain, potentially putting at risk the work and livelihood of farmers across Europe. In Britain, where the outbreak started some weeks ago, farmers are suffering heavy financial losses, and -- because of travel restrictions -- so are rural businesses of all sorts, from hotels to gasoline stations.

In contrast to the deadly potential of BSE, hoof-and-mouth disease has little affect on human health, but it permanently debilitates animals who catch it. As with BSE, immediate slaughter of animals at risk is considered the only viable preventative course. So once again smoke from the funerary pyres of dead animals is rising over the countryside, the images fixed each day on television news.

In Britain, hundreds of thousands of beasts have been killed, and in France, some 50,000. Are these mass killings a reproach to the ethics of modern farming methods? Experts say that, at the least, the growing trend to transport livestock for sale across many countries has contributed to the lightening-fast spread of diseases.

Questions have also arisen about the initial British handling of the hoof-and-mouth problem. The director of the European Federation of Veterinarians, Pierre Choraine, told RFE/RL that it's too early to draw conclusions. But he says:

"It's interesting that the infection was first found in a slaughterhouse, when in fact it should have in the first place been found at the farm level. So here probably there is something to discuss, and to consider in more detail."

Much of the international community has not waited to ponder, but has imposed bans on the import of meat, livestock, and dairy products from the entire EU. Officials in Brussels have complained that the reaction is excessive and say they may challenge several of the bans at the World Trade Organization.

But coming on top of the mad cow crisis, the confidence of consumers in EU food appears to be at a low ebb.

The director of Latvia's EU Integration Bureau, Edvards Kusners, says the various animal scares could even be behind a decline in support among Latvians for joining the EU. He told RFE/RL:

"That is exactly our opinion, it [the slight decline in popularity] is to our minds somehow connected to BSE and these other prominent diseases, because we don't see any other reason why there should be a decline."

Across Central and Eastern Europe, there are worries among officials and farmers that the problems could spread beyond EU territory and reach them, and precautions are being taken. Polish hoof-and-mouth expert Tadeusz Wijaszka, who is a member of the Polish diplomatic mission to the EU, told RFE/RL what his country is doing:

"We are treating this problem very seriously, because our contacts with Western Europe are very open and wide. First, we stopped all susceptible animal movements as well as [the import] of raw meat from all Western European countries. And the [Polish] chief veterinary officer and all district veterinary officers are instructing farmers on what to do, all necessary disinfectants [are being used, and] there is a very wide program for protecting farmers [that] has already been introduced in Poland."

Wijaszka says it is quite possible that hoof-and-mouth could reach far eastwards. He notes there is already concern in Germany, Poland's neighbor, about the possible presence of the virus there:

"You have to remember that the weather is helping the virus, because there is practically no sun, ultraviolet radiation being a very good disinfectant -- but when the days are short and there is a lot of rain and mist, and also lower temperatures, the virus can spread out very easily. It depends of course [in part] on the wind direction."

Wijaszka says he has no complaints about the EU's handling of the hoof-and-mouth outbreak so far. Still, like veterinarian Pierre Choraine, he wonders whether the original source of the trouble in Britain was recognized in time.

However, Mauro Galluccio, a spokesman for the Brussels-based federation of EU farmers' organizations, known as COPA, is calling on the EU to play a stronger role. He told RFE/RL:

"It is a European crisis, and we have to use European-level measures, because we are afraid -- you know -- that each member state is doing things on its own, and we don't think that is really good."

Galluccio says COPA also is calling on the EU to make available more money to compensate farmers suffering stock losses. But officials in Brussels say that the Union's agricultural budget is already stretched to the limit by the crises.