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Mix-up mars Austrian efforts to reassure over madcow disease

December 10, 2001 Agence France Presse by Kim Rahir
Austrian leaders sought Monday to reassure consumers that eating beef is safe, after the first case of mad cow disease was found in the Alpine country, one of Europe's last bastions against BSE.

But official attempts to appear in control were marred by an embarrassing mix-up which nearly destroyed an innocent farmer's livelihood.

"The controls worked. The BSE emergency plan proved itself. The Austrian government's idea to keep blanket tests is the right one," Health Minister Herbert Haupt insisted in a statement. "No meat from an untested cow will get into the food chain," a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Wilhelm Molterer assured consumers.

But consumer trust in the safety of the tests may have been undermined by the mix-up that closed the wrong farm for two days and nearly slaughtered 60 completely unaffected cattle.

"My cows should have been slaughtered today," the farmer from the falsely-accused farm in eastern Austria told the popular daily tabloid, "Die Krone", which described the incident as a "scandalous mistake".

The error prompted consumer groups and the opposition Green party to condemn the tests as insufficient.

And while a farm in Gmuend, northern Austria, was closed and plans were made to slaughter its cattle, the Austrian media continued to speculate that the cows' heads could have been mixed up in the abattoir.

But experts do not expect consumers to lose confidence in Austrian beef.

"Nothing at all will happen," Peter Hayek of market research institute OGM told AFP. Austrian eating habits did not change when Germany's mad cow disease crisis broke out last year or because of the Austrian BSE scare in January, he said.

Austrian agriculture seems in a good position to withstand a large-scale bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis. Most of its businesses are small, family-run farms with an average of barely 20 cows.

Around 10 percent of Austria's farmers, some 20,000, run organic farms. Meat-based animal feed, thought to be the prime source of mad cow disease, has been banned in Austria since 1990.

The cause of the disease remained uncertain on Monday as Austria awaited official confirmation of the infection from laboratories in Switzerland and Britain, although Haupt has already admitted he has no doubts the suspect case is BSE.

Anything from illegally imported feeds to infected vaccines could have provoked the disease, according to Haupt, while the Austrian media suggested a rare spontaneous case of the fatal brain-wasting disease.

The farm in question was a typical, mid-sized dairy and meat farm with 50 to 70 cows, according to Haupt, and the infected animal was born and reared in Austria, agriculture ministry spokesman Daniel Kapp said.

The mad cow disease case is expected to raise concerns above all in the export business.

After the BSE crisis and the German pork scandal Austrian exports to its larger neighbour grew by up to 109.9 percent to nearly 25 million euros in 2001, according to agricultural marketing institute AMA, and pork exports grew by 56.2 percent to roughly 45 million euros.

"We cannot tell yet" whether this trend will end now, AMA spokesman Oskar Wawschinek said Monday.

The discovery of the fatal brain-wasting disease in Austria follows an announcement on Friday by Finland that it had just detected its first case of BSE despite more than a decade of tough faming regulations and a ban since 1990 on imports of meat and bone meal.

In a recent European-wide risk assessment study on mad cow disease, the European Commission classified Austria, Finland, Sweden and Slovenia as "category two" countries, where cases of BSE were not probable.

BSE is linked to the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which first came to light in the mid-1980s.


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