The deadly lowing of "mad cow" disease resounded anew last week, causing fearful Europeans to question the ability — and willingness — of health authorities to prevent meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from entering the food chain. In Britain, an official inquiry criticized government handling of its mad cow crisis. And in France, worried consumers learned that their nation's reputedly high sanitary standards had failed to keep suspect beef off the market.
The French fears arose last week when two national supermarket chains recalled beef from a herd that had included a cow diagnosed with BSE. That recall followed an earlier warning by Carrefour — France's largest supermarket chain — that some of its stores had been supplied with meat from the same potentially infected herd. Although much of the suspect beef was recovered, enough had been eaten prior to the warning that hundreds of consumers were left wondering whether they'd exposed themselves to BSE — which is thought to provoke the similar and deadly Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans. Health officials sought to soothe public concerns by noting others in the affected herd appeared healthy prior to slaughter. Police arrested the owner of the herd on suspicion of violating French laws that require an entire herd to be destroyed if just one member is found to have BSE.
The affair provided an example of how potentially deadly holes could be punched in the nation's food safety system. Last month, press reports revealed producers of cattle feed still mix small levels of animal matter into meal despite a 1990 ban on the practice, which is thought to be a cause of BSE contagion. Meat and bone meal is still routinely used in the feed of other livestock including pigs and chickens. French officials struggled to calm growing consumer alarm, promising to reinforce France's safeguards against BSE. President Jacques Chirac proposed strengthening what he termed the world's "most draconian controls and best security measures" with systematic testing of cattle to provide "all the necessary guarantees about the quality of French beef." He also called for a ban on any animal feed containing matter from other animals "in order to prevent any cross-contamination" to humans.
Farm Minister Jean Glavany pledged to encourage safer vegetal feed alternatives, but pointed out that the "5 or 6 million tests each year" necessary for systematic testing of all slaughterhouse cattle would be too expensive. Instead, he said, France would continue the stepped-up campaign of BSE policing it launched last June, which is set to test 48,000 cattle by year's end.
The report on the British government's handling of the mad cow crisis in the late 1980s, however, sharpened French consumer concern that anything short of full safety guarantees may only be short-term spin-control. The British government inquiry into BSE faulted the Conservative government of the period for playing down the risks of the BSE threat to humans and of using a "campaign of reassurance" to minimize damage to the British beef industry. Both misunderstanding of the malady and misguided efforts to minimize negative financial impacts, the report said, prevented the government from taking drastic measures to fight BSE. That ultimately led to over 180,000 British cattle being infected and 85 Britons contracting the Creutzfeldt-Jakob variant. Of those, more than 80 have died.
France — where a third suspected case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was reported last week — says it averted repeating those catastrophic British mistakes with stiff measures to battle BSE early on. It also continues to defy European Union demands that it lift a 1996 ban on British beef imports that was originally imposed by the E.U. but was raised last year. That refusal, some say, has cynical protectionist motivations and is hypocritical given France's rapidly rising number of BSE cases. Of 158 cases reported since 1991, France uncovered 31 in 1999, and 78 thus far this year.
"That's a normal progression, because we've increased testing," retorts Jeanne Brugère-Picoux, a cattle and BSE expert at the Alfort Veterinary School near Paris. "When you look more, you find more. Consumers should actually be comforted by the increased number of cases we're discovering and eliminating." However, Brugère-Picoux says it's inevitable some infected cows will make it into the human food chain because of the long and undetectable incubation period of BSE. But because organs thought to transmit the illness to humans — such as brains and bone marrow — are banned for sale, the risk of cross-contamination remains small. But is it low enough to prevent France's fastidious diners from beefing?