Déjà vu for BSE as French fail to learn from British mistakes

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On Monday and Tuesday, both lunchtime and evening, the Hippopotamus Grill in the Place de Ternes near the Arc de Triomphe was deserted. " En plein psychose de boeuf" (in the midst of the beef panic) no one wanted to eat in a child-friendly restaurant famous for its succulent steaks.

On Monday and Tuesday, both lunchtime and evening, the Hippopotamus Grill in the Place de Ternes near the Arc de Triomphe was deserted. " En plein psychose de boeuf" (in the midst of the beef panic) no one wanted to eat in a child-friendly restaurant famous for its succulent steaks.

On Wednesday night, we took the entire family. I was the only one to insist on eating steak. But, surprise, surprise, the restaurant was three quarters full. I asked the waitress to explain the difference.

"Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced some new measures on BSE. It seems to have persuaded some people that they can eat beef again. None of the new measures will take effect for days." She might have added that they won't affect the food chain for years. "It is bizarre but..." She shrugged her shoulders.

Bizarre? But then the whole crisis is bizarre. French families are suing British ex-ministers; the Italians are banning French beef. We are suing the French for not admitting British beef (which the Italians are, in theory, eating).

The French public is eating 50 per cent less beef than it did three weeks ago. Why? Because 12 animals were declared to be mad cow suspects after they had already reached the supermarket shelves. They were, in fact, almost certainly healthy.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, accuses the Italians of bad faith and demagoguery; the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, accuses President Chirac (who helped to foment the BSE panic in France when it suited him to embarrass Jospin 10 days ago) of demagoguery and bad faith.

Tomorrow EU agriculture ministers meet in Brussels to try to sort out this poisonous - and irrational - beef stew. Good luck to them.

The crisis is irrational to the extent that, in Britain or in France, you probably have less chance of being infected by a mad cow than at any time in the past 12 years. This is a political crisis rather than a health crisis.

The damage that was done to the known, and yet to be discovered, CJD victims was almost certainly done years ago, before the potentially damaging parts of cows were removed from the food chain. The average incubation periods of both BSE and CJD are unknown but most scientific findings point to an average period of 10 years.

Nonetheless; the Third European Mad Cow Crisis - after those of 1996 and 1999 - may turn out to be the most politically explosive of them all.

French farmers are not like British farmers. They will not suffer in silence the kind of - mostly undeserved - suffering imposed on beef and dairy British farmers in the past six years. If the Italian boycott holds, or spreads, and French domestic beef sales fail to pick up, the next stage in the crisis is predictable: there will be French farmer barricades on the Italian and Spanish borders and, possibly, at the Channel ports and the tunnel.

The crisis will be all the more difficult to resolve because it is based on a series of misunderstandings, half-truths and frequent misreporting of mad cow science which is barely understood by the scientists. It is also rooted in a bizarre approach to the BSE crisis by the French government, which imposed rules that were stricter than were necessary in some areas but weaker than was sensible in others.

For instance, Paris refused, until last Tuesday, to impose a complete ban on the use of ground-up cattle in all animal feeds, despite evidence, from our own mistakes in the early 1990s, that a partial ban (allowing cattle to be fed to pigs and poultry) would be useless. The steady but still slow increase in BSE in France is traced by the government's own vets to the "cross-over" use of pig and poultry feed to fatten cattle.

On the other hand, the French government insists on slaughtering all the animals in a herd where a case of BSE has occurred, despite the evidence that this is pointless. BSE is not infectious like foot and mouth disease.

There have been 181 cases of BSE in France to date - just more than 100 this year. In all the thousands of animals in the 181 massacred herds, only one extra cow has been found to have BSE.

It is this unnecessary rule which started the present crisis. An animal tested positive for BSE at a Norman abattoir last month. Its 12 herd-mates had already been butchered and sent out to the shops. The evidence suggested that the other animals were healthy but French officials insisted that the meat had to be recalled. One French newspaper ran the irresponsible headline "Mad cows in our supermarkets" and the crisis began.

Serve the French right for banning limited imports of UK beef, declared safe by the EU, a year ago? Maybe. But who gave BSE to France in the first place? It is accepted, on both sides of the Channel, that the BSE in French cows came originally from infected cattle feed imported from Britain. Given the incubation period for both BSE and new variant CJD, the three (and possibly four) CJD victims in France probably caught the disease from low-quality British hamburger beef, which was exported to France in large quantities before 1996.

The legal action brought by two families of French CJD victims on Friday seeks to blame British, French and EU officials in the period from 1986 to 1996 for allowing BSE to take hold in the French cattle herds. The families point out that the British government banned cattle feed containing cattle remains in 1988. But British firms were allowed - or allegedly encouraged - to dump the feed cheaply on the continent, especially in France.

Evidence to substantiate such claims may be difficult to find. The chances of Conservative ex-agriculture ministers such as John Gummer and Douglas Hogg appearing in a French court are virtually nil. But the court case serves as a reminder that the rampant Schadenfreude in some parts of the British press, and especially in the Conservative party, is utterly misplaced.

The French epidemic, still growing, is part of the 700-times larger British epidemic, now, thankfully, fading.