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France fears new mad cow crisis after mix-up

France fears new mad cow crisis after mix-up

June 11, 2001, Reuters by Greg Frost

PARIS (Reuters) - France fears a repeat of last year's beef crisis after the government said nine cattle from a herd containing an animal suffering from mad cow disease ended up in the human food chain.

"Of course we're afraid (of a repeat of the beef crisis). It's fairly delicate," a farm ministry spokesman said on Monday.

Authorities are investigating whether fraud played a role in how the potentially infected meat was able to enter the food chain instead of being destroyed according to French law, a ministry statement issued at the weekend said.

The incident was eerily reminiscent of the disclosure last October that three French supermarket chains sold beef from a herd containing an animal suffering from mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The discovery triggered a sharp drop in beef consumption in France, and the ensuing crisis spread across the European Union following the detection of cases in Germany, Italy and Spain -- countries previously free of the fatal, brain-wasting illness.

Around 100 people in Britain and France have died or are believed to be dying from the human form of BSE, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), which is thought to be caused by eating contaminated meat products.

CHRONOLOGY OF A MIX-UP

The ministry said the latest problem stemmed from the discovery on April 2 of a seven-year-old cow infected with BSE in the Meuse department of northeastern France.

All 166 animals in the herd were destroyed, according to France's "systematic slaughter" policy.

However, veterinary officials discovered on April 17 that 21 animals from the same herd had been sent last year to a farm in the neighbouring Meurthe-et-Moselle department.

The officials alerted the farmer in the Meurthe-et-Moselle department of the presence of the animals on April 18.

But nearly three weeks later, the farmer informed officials that nine of the 21 cattle had been sent to a slaughterhouse on April 5, 26 and 27 and that their meat entered the food chain.

The ministry said the government representative in Meurthe-et-Moselle had launched an investigation of possible fraud in connection with the affair.

In a bid to assuage consumer fears, the ministry noted that the nine cattle were all 18 months or younger, and that France had never found BSE in an animal younger than 30 months.

"These were very young animals (that were) not part of the same generation as the infected cow. They were not exposed to the same risk -- they did not eat the same food," the ministry spokesman said.

Moreover, the spokesman said it was only because of France's "systematic slaughter" policy that the affair was worrying.

He added that French food safety agency AFSSA was mulling whether France should replace the policy with a "selective slaughter" rule -- similar to one in Switzerland -- under which only the animals most at risk in a herd are destroyed following the discovery of a case of BSE.

"In Switzerland, they have selective slaughter and cows from herds (with BSE) enter into the food chain," he said.

"So this is a situation that for the moment is illegal but which could become legal."


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