Chirac fuels BSE panic

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President Jacques Chirac called for an immediate ban on cattle remains in all French animal feed and widespread testing for BSE in French cattle yesterday. His call, in an unscheduled, solemn, daytime television address to the nation, was intended to calm a growing panic among consumers.

President Jacques Chirac called for an immediate ban on cattle remains in all French animal feed and widespread testing for BSE in French cattle yesterday. His call, in an unscheduled, solemn, daytime television address to the nation, was intended to calm a growing panic among consumers.

By seeming to confirm their worst, and probably exaggerated fears, he may have had the opposite effect.

Left-wing politicians accused him of trying to take politicaladvantage of the crisis. The centre-left government of Lionel Jospin, co-habiting uneasily with the centre-right President, had already indicated it intends to take both measures demanded by Mr Chirac.

The growing hysteria surrounding BSE in France began when 14 "suspect", but not necessarily infected, cows entered the food chain two weeks ago. A score of French cities have withdrawn beef from school canteens, half a dozen non-EU countries have banned French beef and domestic beef sales have dropped 20 per cent.

Officials are trying to appeal for reason and calm. The director general of public health, Lucien Abenhaim, said there was no scientific evidence that BSE could be passed to humans through consumption of red meat. To suggest otherwise was "to plunge into demagoguery", he said.

That was precisely the point made by the British Government and the European Commission when France defied EU instructions and refused to allow limited and controlled imports of British "red meat" beef a year ago.

Mr Jospin's government, which proclaimed then that French policy was based on maximum precaution, finds itself hoist on its own petard. The 27 mayors who banned beef from school canteens cite the same "precaution" principle.

Is there any serious reason for French, or other, consumers to fear French beef? As always with BSE, the arguments are complex and difficult for non-scientists to understand. The opportunities for confusion or scare-mongering are many.

But many French people now realise their domestic protections against BSE - and its transmission to humans in the form of variant CJD - do not always fulfil the principle of maximum precaution proclaimed by Mr Jospin.

There is no catastrophic epidemic of BSE in France to even approach the scale of the disaster that befell British agriculture in the late Eighties and early Nineties. There have been 180,000 cases of BSE in Britain in the past dozen years and 166 cases in France.

Even this year, there will probably be 10 times as many cases in Britain as in France. But the epidemic in Britain appears to be under control. In France, it threatens to run out of control, though it is unlikely to reach the scale once seen in Britain.

The reason for the rise in BSE in France - 86 cases so far this year, and 31 last year - remains a mystery. There is increasing evidence that the fault may lie with the French government's refusal to impose a ban on the use of cattle remains, potentially a carrier of BSE, in all kinds of animal feed. The use of cattle and other ruminant animal remains in feed has been banned in Europe since 1990. Since 1996, Britain has banned ground-up ruminants in all animal. France permits them for fattening pigs and poultry.

Almost all recent cases of BSE in France can be traced to the accidental or deliberate "cross-over" use of such feed to fatten cattle. The French government plans "as soon as possible" to fall in line with Britain and ban animal remains in all kinds of feed.

Earlier this year, France introduced a wider system of testing for BSE. This covers only Normandy and Brittany and concerns animals that die accidentally or suddenly, even if they display no BSE symptoms. Thirty cases discovered this year were revealed by these tests, which Mr Chirac wants extended.

Although the new precaution was intended to reassure consumers, it has helped to generate the BSE psychosis raging in France.

Since the tests show BSE can be present in animals that show no symptoms, it is reasonable to assume the disease is present in other, untested animals entering the food chain. One newspaper suggested the French consume 500 cows with BSE each year. BSE experts dispute this. France places few restrictions on meat sales. In Britain, all beef sold (including French) must come from cows less than 30 months old. Scientists believe they cannot pass on even dormant BSE prions. There is no age restriction on beef sold in France.

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