Beef Crisis: European farmers wait for epidemic to strike

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Britain keeps introducing new measures against BSE - but the focus should really be on the Continent, where a growing number of countries are reporting cases of the disease. Scientists also suspect that worse is to come. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, investigates.

Franz Fischler, the EU Farm Commissioner, made no bones about it yesterday: "The risks from beef, though small, are greater in Britain than elsewhere." But is that unequivocally correct?

As the epidemic tails off in the UK, the number of cases reported in other European countries continues to rise - and with it are suspicions that some farmers there are purposely not reporting cases. Although about 350 have been reported from Continental EU members, statistical analysis suggests there should have been 1,700 cattle with the disease. "There's more infection in other countries - they're at the beginning of their epidemic, rather than the tail end," said Dr Stephen Dealler, an independent expert on BSE and its spread.

Many other countries in the EU have begun to report cases of BSE. Last month, Luxembourg reported its first case, one of 15 indigenous cattle; the disease was blamed by the government on infected feed imported from Belgium - which has never admitted having any BSE cases.

Portugal, Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Italy and Denmark have all reported cases - though the total numbers range from one (in Denmark) to more than 200 both in Ireland and Switzerland. The cause is frequently blamed on animals imported from other countries - especially the UK and Switzerland. On this basis, Germany claims never to have had an "indigenous" case of BSE.

Work by a Dutch researcher, published in the Veterinary Record, also suggests many countries are under-reporting BSE cases. By analysing the age of cattle exported from Britain, he estimated that Ireland alone - which has reported 218 cases in all - should have had 1,000.

It also suggests that those countries could be at the start of their own BSE epidemics, as cattle incubating the disease are rendered in meat and bone meal which is then fed back to younger cattle - giving them time to develop full-blown BSE.

Furthermore, countries do not yet remove offal - known to be the most infectious parts of BSE-infected cows - in their slaughterhouses, though that should come into effect from 1 January. Nor do they exclude cattle over 30 months old from the food supply, as happens in the UK.

Britain is still, though, the BSE capital of the world. So far this year there have been 2,898 confirmed cases of "mad-cow disease" in the UK, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; the total since 1987 is 169,472, and the epidemic is not expected to end here before 2001. Only Switzerland comes close - but is a long way off, with 35 cases so far this year, bringing its total since 1990 to 265.

However, if beef muscle does contain the BSE agent, it must be in concentrations hundreds or thousands of times lower than in the spinal or brain tissue. That means that until the regulations removing the spinal cord come into power across Europe, beef from the Continent is potentially more infectious than that in the UK.