Confusion over France's BSE safety net

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The Independent Online

The front page headline in a generally reliable French Sunday paper said: "Mad cows sold in our supermarkets".

The front page headline in a generally reliable French Sunday paper said: "Mad cows sold in our supermarkets".

Nothing in the story that followed on the next page justified the headline. Eleven cows from the same herd as an animal that tested positive for BSE had - accidentally or deliberately - beaten the French rules and ended up on the supermarket shelves.

But, according to British scientific knowledge of BSE, there is no particular reason to suspect that these animals have BSE. The disease is not infectious in the same way as, say, foot and mouth disease.

The French Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, made this point in a down-page interview in the same newspaper, the Journal du Dimanche yesterday. Why, then, does his ministry insist on slaughtering all animals in a herd where a case of BSE has occurred? Small wonder that the French public, like the British public before it, is becoming thoroughly confused, and increasingly suspicious, about the often conflicting official and media information about BSE.

In this respect, France has had a bad week. The claim made by a British BSE expert that French beef was now more dangerous than British beef made no impact across the Channel. But there has been consternation, among farmers and consumers alike, at the revelation that French officials permit the use of cattle feed containing a tiny quantity of cattle remains, 10 years after such fodder was officially banned in Europe as the cause of the British BSE epidemic.

The case of the cows that slipped through the French BSE net has deepened the confusion. A cattle farmer and trader from Beuzeville, near Rouen, is suspected of deliberately separating a cow with BSE symptoms from 11 others bought from the same herd.

He sold the 11 cows on 4October. By the time the 12th tested positive for BSE in the middle of last week, the meat from its former companions was already on the shelves of 39 supermarkets in northern and western France.