Belgians march in memory of 'hormone mafia' victim

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The Independent Online
KATHERINE BUTLER

Brussels

The widow of a Belgian vet will lead a torchlight procession in Flanders tonight in memory of her husband, gunned down a year ago at his front door by the international hormone mafia.

As a government meat inspector, Karel Van Noppen mounted a campaign against dealers in illegal animal hormones. They trade in banned substances which when injected into beef cattle convert fat to lean flesh and stimulate artificial rates of growth, ensuring big profits for producers.

On the anniversary of the murder tonight, Mieke Van Noppen will lead a parade to the spot in Wechelderzande, near Antwerp, where her husband was shot. She says the event has been organised not just to mark the killing but to warn the traffickers that while her husband might be dead, his campaign goes on. "It was his whole life, now I have taken it on."

Responding to an appeal by the newly launched Karel Van Noppen Foundation, thousands of Belgians will shun meat for the day as a symbolic gesture of support but also to highlight revulsion at meat from animals pumped full of growth drugs. The killers are still at large and the agriculture minister, Karel Pinxten, admitted last week that, despite the introduction of stringent controls and fines on farmers caught using illegal substances, the mafia's "hard core" is as active as ever. There have been complaints that the government's commitment to the problem has not been matched by funds. A special police unit is to be scrapped.

A controversial book out this week goes even further, suggesting that Van Noppen, who was receiving daily death threats, was warned by members of the government to ease off his investigations.

Mrs Van Noppen admits to being less than satisfied with the handling of the hunt. "We were promised lots of things, but I no longer have any illusions left."

The anniversary coincides with the reopening of a bitter debate within the European Union on whether the ban on hormones in meat, imposed in 1988, should be lifted. Only Britain among the 15 governments backs a repeal but the US, which permits hormones, has lodged a complaint against the measure with the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

Scientists summoned to review the evidence by the EU agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, last month endorsed the US case. Leading researchers in the field said that the use of five "natural" hormones under prescribed conditions poses no risk for human health.

However, the logic behind the ban is no longer rooted in objective scientific arguments. Consumer rejection of artificial growth stimulants is now so strong that EU officials predict meat-eating would drop by a quarter if hormones are legalised.

"We have been telling people for so long that hormones are bad for them, they are not going accept the opposite suddenly," said one.

Horror stories from the Seventies and early Eighties are still around: the Italian boy who reportedly developed breasts after eating veal from a calf which had been injected with a cocktail of hormone derivatives shortly before slaughter is probably the most graphic.

Against this background, the economic consequences of legalising hormones for an industry already reeling from the effects of mad cow disease are obvious. Mr Fischler, keen to avoid any disruption of markets, has ruled out any early change in the legislation.

A Conservative MEP, James Provan, who sits on the European Parliament's agriculture committee, opposed the ban in 1988.

Now, influenced by the strength of consumer reaction, he has changed his mind. "There is so much instability in the beef sector the last thing we want is to risk a further backlash."

"I think you would see a massive fall in consumption," he added.

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