Paris shrugs, but its precautions have not stopped the disease

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Claims that it is more dangerous to eat beef in France than in Britain were shrugged off by Paris yesterday as another salvo in the BSE war between the two countries.

Claims that it is more dangerous to eat beef in France than in Britain were shrugged off by Paris yesterday as another salvo in the BSE war between the two countries.

Behind the facade, however, there is concern across the Channel about the rapid spread of "mad cow" disease. There are also, for the first time, signs of public doubt about the official line that France takes "extreme precautions" to protect its people from BSE.

This "precaution principle" was the reason given by Paris for its decision to flout EU law by imposing a unilateral ban on imports of beef from Britain just over a year ago. But there is increasing evidence that, more than a decade after the dangers were first identified, French internal controls on BSE are sometimes loosely enforced and subject to pressure from the farm and food lobbies.

The number of BSE cases in France will more than double this year. There have already been 66 recorded cases, compared to 30 cases in 1999 and 18 in 1998. France is the only country other than Britain to have any confirmed cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE. The figures must be kept in perspective: there have been fewer than 150 cases of BSE in France in eight years, compared to 180,000 in the UK. There are two cases of vCJD compared to 83 in Britain. But the number of BSE attacks in Britain is falling steadily, broadly in line with official projections, while the disease is gaining ground in France.

The French newspaper Le Figaro claimed earlier this year that parts of at least 1,200 BSE-infected cattle were consumed by humans in France each year. These figures were rejected by the French government officials and scientists who said they were misleading.

Provisional results are expected shortly on a new system of more widespread testing for BSE in France. Twenty cases found this year were identified by these tests. French sources say that the preliminary evidence suggests there will be no "explosion" of BSE in France, as there was in Britain in the early 1990s.

There are, nonetheless, two reasons for arguing that France is doing less than it could to control the spread of the disease and to protect consumers from infection.

Firstly, on the spread of the disease, France has failed to impose a complete ban on the use of ground-up cattle carcasses in animal feed. Such feed, accepted as the origin of the British epidemic, has been banned in Britain since 1996.

France bans the use of cattle remains in cattle feed but allows them in chicken and pig feed. French government vets believe that most cases of BSE in France in the last few years can be traced to "cross-over" - accidental or deliberate - feeding of "contaminated" pig and chicken fodder to cows.

A complete ban on cattle remains in animal fodder is resisted by the French agriculture ministry and farm lobby because it would increase the cost of feed for the already struggling pig and poultry industries. French officials also say that it would be impossible to organise such a ban in France alone; it would have to be imposed at EU level.

Secondly, France fails to take several precautions to prevent human infection by BSE. In Britain, beef sold for human consumption must come from cows younger than 30 months, when, scientist believe, the disease, if present, has yet to develop into a transmissible form. No such restrictions have been imposed in France. Officials in Paris say the scale of the BSE outbreak in France does not yet justify such extreme measures.

For more than a year, the French government has ignored calls from its own food safety agency, AFSSA, for tighter restrictions on which parts of a cow can be eaten by humans. Last week it relented and ordered a ban on the use of cattle intestine in sausage-making, despite protests from the charcuterie industry.

Paris has yet to act on AFSSA's call for a ban on the use of the ground-up spinal columns of cows in gelatines sold for human consumption.