BSE panic reaches France

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The Independent Online

T-bone steaks are off the menu in the country's largest chain of grillhouses; nearly half of Paris schools have stopped serving beef to children; new cases of BSE-infected cattle are running at approximately one a day. France, a nation which believed itself largely free of the disease, is suddenly getting the same kind of jitters that swept through Britain five years ago.

T-bone steaks are off the menu in the country's largest chain of grillhouses; nearly half of Paris schools have stopped serving beef to children; new cases of BSE-infected cattle are running at approximately one a day. France, a nation which believed itself largely free of the disease, is suddenly getting the same kind of jitters that swept through Britain five years ago.

If BSE anxiety is on the rise, it is largely as a result of the disturbing incident last month in which an unscrupulous cattle-dealer in Normandy tried to hide an infected cow within a healthy herd. Veterinary controls at the abattoir worked effectively and the sick cow was spotted, but by then it was too late. The dealer had already sold on 13 cattle from the original infected herd, and eight tonnes of their meat ended up on supermarket shelves.

The news confirmed what many had long feared: that the true extent of BSE in France has been masked by a combination of fraud and complacency. If a dealer was prepared to smuggle a sick cow into the food-chain, how many other farmers have been tempted to conceal the presence of infection?

At the same time, the tally of stricken animals has continued to rise almost daily. The figure stands at 166, of which 86 have been detected this year. Hence the worried calls in Paris this week from parents to the school authorities, demanding that beef be removed from canteens.

By the weekend, nine out of the capital's 20 arrondissements had taken the step. "I know the meat is probably safe, but with children's health there is an instinct not to take even the slightest risk," said Annette Hevelot, a mother in the residential 14th arrondissement.

And then on Friday Buffalo Grill, the country's biggest chain of steakhouses, announced that it is withdrawing T-bone and rib steaks from all 220 of its outlets because it expects a government ban on beef served on the bone. Another chain, Hippo-potamus, followed suit. The French government has as yet made no such announcement, but its food safety agency AFSSA is known to be concerned that infected matter from the spinal cord could be passed into meat that is attached to it.

In Britain, the Tories have called for a ban on French beef and urged the European Commission to stop all exports until the scare is over. James Paice, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, said: "When it was first realised that BSE could lead to variant CJD, the European Commission banned the sale of British beef. I would look to the Government to do the same for French beef."

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