BSE cases grow as French farmers use banned feed

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The Independent Online

The growing French epidemic of BSE can be traced directly to farmers fattening their cattle with potentially contaminated feed that was officially banned in 1991, according to official investigations.

The growing French epidemic of BSE can be traced directly to farmers fattening their cattle with potentially contaminated feed that was officially banned in 1991, according to official investigations.

Paris justified its flouting of European Union rules to maintain the ban on British beef last month by arguing that it had a duty to take "extreme precautions" to protect human health. But there is now mounting evidence that the French government's own measures against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are inadequate and loosely enforced.

Inquiries by French government vets have shown a "probable or possible" connection between all recent cases of the disease in France and the use of compound animal feed containing the ground-up remains of cattle. Officially, the findings are secret but they have been leaked to the newspaper Le Figaro and confirmed to The Independent by a source in the French food safety agency, the AFSSA.

Such feed, blamed for the vastly greater BSE epidemic in Britain, has been banned as cattle fodder in both countries since 1991. It has been banned from animal feed of all kinds in Britain since 1996, when it was realised that cattle were still being fed on contaminated feedstuffs destined for pigs and poultry. Yet it remains legally available in France to feed pigs and poultry. Officials believe that its accidental or deliberate use for cattle explains why the incidence of BSE in France is almost doubling annually.

The numbers must be kept in perspective. Contrary to claims by the Conservative Party, there is no "mass" epidemic of BSE across the Channel and there is no credible evidence that some cases are being "hidden". There have been just over 100 BSE cases in France in eight years, compared with a monumental 180,000 cases in Britain.

The fact remains, however, that the number of cases in the United Kingdom is falling rapidly while the disease is "inexplicably" gaining ground in France, where there have been 14 cases already this year, compared with 30 last year and 18 the year before.

Last week, the French Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, speculated that the advance of the disease might be connected to some unknown "third" method of infection. The only scientifically proved means of transmission are through tainted feed and, in rare cases, through inheritance.

However, the leaked findings show that the French government is aware of the likely real cause of the spread of BSE. Each outbreak has been investigated exhaustively by the Ministry of Agriculture's vets. The average period of incubation of BSE is five years; records of food supplied to animals, or available on the farm, have been examined for seven years before the outbreak.

The results of these inquiries have been kept secret. However, the leak to Le Figaro has revealed that every single case of BSE in France can be linked to a "probable or possible" wrongful, or "cross-over", use of animal feed officially restricted to poultry and pigs.

An official at the AFSSA said it was clear that some farmers had "only in the last few months truly understood the danger" of using cheaper feeds. The Confédération Paysanne farmers' union makes an even more serious accusation. It accuses French compound feed manufacturers of either deliberately or carelessly flouting the law and continuing to mix cattle remains in cattle feed. The union said this week that Mr Glavany's suggestion of a "third way" of catching BSE was intended to "divert public attention from the imprudent, or even fraudulent, practices of certain large manufacturers".

Officials at the French Ministry of Agriculture reject such claims. They say that there is no evidence of systematic flouting of the law by feed manufacturers. If this was so, they say, there would be a much greater BSE epidemic in France.

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