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Friday, 2 February, 2001, 16:15 GMT
Germany's mad cow laboratory
Cow transported for slaughter
Scientists will examine how BSE entered Germany
By Peter Morgan in Riems Island, Germany

If you trace your finger along the map of Germany's ragged coastline, you will, if you look closely enough, find Riems Island, deep inside what was the old East.

But you would not be allowed to visit this remote corner of re-unified Germany. But I was allowed access.

This is a place that has been sealed off from the public for the best part of a century.

A steel gate and television equipment guard the only access road, high fences and razor wire prevent approach by sea.

The fortifications keep anything from outside getting in - but more importantly they prevent anything from inside getting out.

Riems Island is a laboratory where animal viruses and diseases are investigated.

And now it is to be the epicentre of Germany's research into BSE - deadly in cattle and, it transpires, in humans too.

The shock for me was how candid the scientists were about their ignorance of a disease that has terrified Germans since it was found in the national herd for the first time last year.

I asked them:

"Has the link between BSE and CJD in humans been proved to your own satisfaction yet?"

"No I don't think we can say that it has."

"Do we know how BSE arrived in Germany which has long had strict controls on the standard of its animal feed?"

"No I am afraid we don't."

"How far are we from a vaccination or a cure?"

"Oh many years."

"Is the milk of BSE infected cattle dangerous?"

"We don't think so, but no one can say for certain."

Economic consequences

But of course the scientists are not to blame for the fact that so little research has so far been done on BSE.

The work has got to start somewhere, and this seems as good a place as any. And this is not just a matter of pressing public health concern.

The economic consequences of the BSE crisis are suddenly becoming as apparent in Germany as they are already in Britain and France.

Farmers' protest
"Stop the mad politicians" say German farmers
The extermination of 400,000 cattle has just begun here.

And this in a country where the government was assuring the general public there was no BSE as recently as November.

The farmers are stunned, and angry. But so are many others.

I visited an enormous sausage factory just 48 hours after its shocked staff had been told the plant is to close, and their jobs will be lost.

Already the majority of the factory plant was standing idle.

Sales of beef and any products suspected of containing beef have fallen by half 80% in some places.

As I passed by my local steak house last night, I noticed there were absolutely no customers, and that a large poster had been pasted to the window desperately proclaiming: "We sell pork, turkey and fish as well".

Of course the BSE crisis has a political dimension too. In Germany two ministers have been forced to resign, but this has only gone some way to diluting anger against the government.

There cannot be a person in meat-loving, health-obsessed Germany who does not wish the scientists locked away on distant Riems island swift and significant success with their secret endeavours.

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See also:

31 Jan 01 | Europe
Germany to kill 400,000 cows
19 Jan 01 | Europe
Germany tightens beef controls
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