France's Leaders Fuel the Beef With Boeuf

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Why is France suddenly experiencing a surge of panic over "Mad Cow" disease?

"There's a greater incidence of cattle turning up with 'Mad Cow' disease because there's a lot more testing now, and it's focused on more likely sources. They're testing older cattle and "fallen stock" — cattle that have had to be put down because of bizarre behavior, or died in any unusual way. So it's not surprising they're finding more cases.

"But the public fear has had a political effect, and that's prompted politicians to take steps that only increase the panic. Prime Minister Jospin's decision to ban cuts of beef on the bone and feed containing any animal matter is simply theatrics aimed at soothing consumer fears. But it may be creating more problems than it actually solved."

"Mad Cow" had previously been viewed as a British phenomenon. How did it jump the Channel?

"British experts believe that the disease first spread from cow to cow through feed that contained by products from slaughtered cattle and other animals. These elements had been added to the feed as a protein boost, to fatten up the cattle faster and cheaper, but scientists believe that by making carnivores out of herbivores, they may have created this mad prion, which jumps from animal to animal causing 'Mad Cow' disease. If that is the case, then chances are that it spread in France when British feed was exported to the continent even after it was thought to possibly be one of the vectors of transmission. And through the manufacture of similar feed in Europe.

"A case lodged in Paris by two families of people who contacted Kreuzfeld-Jakobs disease from meat infected with 'Mad Cow' disease charges the British and French governments for allowing such feed to be sold in France even after it was banned in Britain. The evidence that feed was the source of the disease was considered sufficient in Britain to ban such feed in 1988, but between then and 1996, when it was finally banned by the European Union, there may have been enough feed exported and manufactured on the continent to spread the disease."

The French have traditionally prided themselves on the quality of their food sources, even while sneering at the quality of food products elsewhere. How has the "Mad Cow" panic affected the national psyche?

Well, obviously the British are laughing because France had been so tough on their 'Mad Cow' problem. And Italy and Spain have stopped importing French beef, but probably for the same protectionist reasons as the French stopped buying British. What's most terrifying, though, is the information gap. Scientists are pretty sure that you can't be infected from eating a steak — most people who contacted Kreuzfeld-Jakobs in Britain are believed to have been infected not from steaks or other prime cuts, but from parts of the cow with lots of nerves in them, such as brain, internal organs, spine — the kind of stuff that gets thrown into the chopper and added to beef in burgers and sausage. Still, people are fleeing from all beef. In France, sales have fallen 50 percent in the past week.

"And the French are less concerned with their prestige and feeling of superiority than with the simple terror of the syndrome. Although only three cases of Kreuzfeld-Jakobs are on record in France, the terror is not unlike that of the early days of AIDS. People don't know what this disease is and how it keeps occurring. But the real shock is the sudden sense that something as basic as eating something for sustenance can end up killing you."