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Wednesday, 25 October, 2000, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
BSE: The spectre spreads?

The threat of mad cow disease may be receding in UK, but in France a BSE panic is brewing, writes BBC News Online's Bella Hurrell.

A year ago France defied a European Union ruling and imposed a ban on British beef imports. It still faces legal action from the European Court for continuing with the embargo.

But French cautiousness has turned to alarm. BSE cases in France are now more than double what they were last year.

The country is also reeling from the scare that some potentially BSE infected French beef went on sale in the supermarket giant Carrefour. The meat was withdrawn and Carrefour has announced plans to sue the beef supplier.

Reported BSE cases 1997-2000
  1997 1998 1999 2000
Belgium 1 6 3 6
Denmark 0 0 0 1
France 6 18 31 71
Ireland (Rep.) 80 83 91 57
Lichtenstein 0 2 - -
Luxembourg 1 0 0 0
Netherlands 2 2 2 -
Portugal 30 106 170 85
Switzerland 38 14 50 26
UK 4309 3178 2254 962
Source: Office International des Epizooties, Maff

Portugal, Ireland and Switzerland also have significant BSE levels which have also increased over the last few years, although figures for this year do not yet show an upturn.

BSE infected French beef also hit the headlines in the UK when one member of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), which advises government ministers on BSE and its human equivalent vCJD, urged people not to eat French beef at all.

Professor Harriet Kimbell said: "Tourists should be made aware that it may well be that British beef is now safer than it is in some other European countries."

The 30-month ban

Roger Waite of Brussels based journal Agrafax says: "Most scientists will say it is safer to eat British beef than French beef because no animal over 30 months can enter the British food chain."

Cattle over the age of 30 months have been banned for human consumption in Britain since 1996.

The 30-month date is a key one because it is thought to be several months before any animal could physically develop or pass on the disease, even if were infected.

Although France has gone some way to addressing the threat by introducing more accurate BSE tests, it does not have a similar ban.

"In France, Ireland or Portugal for example, right up until an animal has BSE and starts falling over it can go into the food chain," says Mr Waite.

But the figures show that BSE cases in Britain still dwarf those in the rest of Europe put together, so how come France is so worried?

Rising figures

The crucial factor is that BSE cases in France are rising, while in Britain they are declining. Levels in Ireland, Portugal and Switzerland could also be on the increase.

It is thought that BSE is spread through animal feed contaminated with BSE infected meat or bone meal (MBM).

One of the reasons that cases in the UK are declining is that restrictions preventing any MBM from entering animal feed have been in place in the UK for a number of years.

"In 1996 what was done in the UK was that the animal feed chain was made watertight," said Mr Waite.

"In all other countries including France nothing was done until after 1996. In a number of countries some measures were not watertight until 1999.

"What we are seeing now is what animals were eating five years ago... So we can expect to see a rise in BSE in a number of countries, including France."

Although EU rules now prevent the use of MBM in all cattle feed, some countries do still allow MBM into feed for pigs and poultry.

This has also led to fears about cross contamination of feed on farms and at feed mills.

Increased regulation

The threat of BSE has led to increased regulation in France. The French government recently banned the use of cow's intestines used in the making of traditional sausages.

The French food safety agency AFSSA, argued the intestines had a high probability of being infected by BSE and could lead to the transmission of BSE into humans as vCJD.

AFSSA is recommending even stricter controls.

It has called for an immediate ban on the use of beef intestines in any part of the human or animal food chain and demanded a ban on the use of beef fat and the spinal columns of cows.

This all sounds hauntingly familiar. But if Britain now has a safer beef industry than other European countries that's because it endured a BSE public health disaster in the 1980s and 1990s.

While there is cause for concern about the spread of BSE throughout Europe, it is unlikely any country will ever equal Britain's infamous record of more than 36,000 BSE infected cattle at the height of its BSE crisis.

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