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Will EU measures calm mad cow fears?

LONDON, England -- The decision of the emergency meeting of EU agriculture ministers to impose a Europe-wide ban on animal products in feed for all livestock is a welcome step in moderating public alarm over the spread of BSE.

A purchase for destruction scheme, in which farmers will receive compensation for the slaughter of cattle over 30-months-old, has also been adopted.

EU action was vital to prevent a rash of unilateral actions by governments across Europe alarmed at the potential spread of variant CJD, the brain wasting human form of BSE which is most likely caused by eating contaminated meat.

But doubts remain whether the EU has now established control over the BSE question. Germany did not think the ban on meat and bone meal was going far enough.

The test will be whether individual governments continue to go their own way, for example by continuing to ban the import of French beef or renewing single country bans on the import of beef from the UK, where the BSE epidemic has been on a huge scale.

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Ministers hope that Monday’s action will be enough to stop the BSE panic taking over the Nice summit this week at which European leaders have to discuss vital constitutional reforms. But it is doubtful if it will be enough on its own to restore public confidence.

Panic has spread following the discovery in October that contaminated meat might have reached supermarket shelves in France, where BSE cases have tripled this year, and the discovery of the first BSE cases in Germany and Spain.

The purchase for destruction scheme, promoted by EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler, will add another $1 billion to the $1.7 billion cost of the fodder ban.

The signs are that other countries have not learned sufficiently from the example of the United Kingdom, where a recent official report criticised former government ministers for initially playing down public fears and the risk to humans and failing to co-ordinate their response swiftly enough.

The report by Lord Phillips said that it was a mistake for the Conservative Government, in power during the 10 years it took to establish a link between BSE and variant CJD, to have stuck to its “campaign of reassurance” in the hope of moderating consumer panic and the loss of beef exports.

So far the ensuing crisis in the farm industry has cost British taxpayers more than $6 billion.

One key lesson of the British experience was the tendency of governments to pay too much attention to food producers and not enough to consumers. Another was the slowness of the civil service machine at turning policy into practical measures on the ground, for example over the enforcement of a ban on bovine offal.

The Phillips Report into the British experience on BSE also suggested that efforts to tackle the crisis were held back by an eagerness to restrain expenditure. It remains to be seen whether governments across the rest of the EU have digested that lesson.



RELATED STORIES:
EU launches anti-BSE drive
December 4, 2000
Germany targets cattle feed amid BSE crisis
December 1, 2000
Germany to make BSE testing mandatory
November 30, 2000
EU warning over BSE
November 27, 2000

RELATED SITES:
European Union
World Health Organisation:Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies
Britain's BSE Inquiry
Mad Cow Disease

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