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The BBC's Angus Roxburgh
"The bleak message was digested over lunch by agriculture ministers"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 30 January, 2001, 00:58 GMT
EU facing BSE cost explosion
Cow killed by lethal injection in Germany
Europe faces a mountain of unwanted beef
European Union Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler has warned that the growing crisis over BSE, or mad cow disease, is threatening to stretch the EU's farm budget to breaking point.

Speaking to EU agriculture ministers in Brussels on Monday, Mr Fischler said the state of Europe's beef market was alarming, and much worse than previously forecast.


"We really are at the very limit, if not beyond, in terms of what we can fund with the EU budget

EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler
Sales of beef inside the union, he said, were down 27% and falling. Bans on EU beef imports by many countries outside the union threatened a market surplus of up to a million tonnes with no outlet.

"We really are at the very limit, if not beyond, in terms of what we can fund with the EU budget," he said.

"With all the will in the world, and fully recognising the dire straits farmers are in at the moment, we have zero room for manoeuvre."

Gloom

The EU Commission, had hoped beef sales would drop by no more than 10% over a full year, but Mr Fischler said it now realised that sales were unlikely to rise in the near future.

Farmers demonstrate in Bremen
Beef sales have halved in Germany, sparking farmer protests
He told his colleagues that continuing to provide farmers with a guaranteed beef price in a depressed market could cost at least 3 billion euros ($2.8bn), triple what was forecast in the current EU budget.

Mr Fischler urged member states to take advantage of the so-called purchase-for-destruction scheme whereby farmers are paid to destroy older cattle.

The alternative, he said, was to put unwanted beef into publicly-funded cold storage at massive cost.

"If we do this, farm expenditures would simply explode, which would lead to cuts in other agriculture sectors."

Safety tightened

Nowhere is the current panic over potentially infected beef being felt more keenly than in Germany.

Sales there have dropped by half, and the government has lowered the age for testing cattle for BSE to 24 months after a younger cow tested positive.

Some ministers at Monday's meeting - which was called to discuss ways both to curb the over production and to counter consumer panic - suggested the rest of the EU should follow suit.

But a majority agreed that keeping the test age at 30 months was still sufficient - even though some cases of BSE have been found in younger animals.

Agreement was reached, however, on toughening other safety measures, including bans on mechanically-recovered beef and meat adjacent to the spinal column.

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See also:

26 Jan 01 | Europe
UN: World at risk from BSE
23 Dec 00 | Europe
Global alert on BSE
04 Dec 00 | Europe
EU agrees anti-BSE action
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