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Report: Paris slow to respond to mad cow

November 27, 2001 United Press International by Elizabeth Bryant
Official documents offer new details of French government foot-dragging over mad cow prevention measures, Le Figaro newspaper reported Tuesday.

Seized by an investigating magistrate in January, the documents reportedly are being used to buttress legal arguments of families of two victims of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, mad cow disease's deadly human variant.

In a letter to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the families charge lax government prevention measures indirectly caused the death of Arnaud Eboli and Laurence Duhamel. They are asking for 3 million francs -- about $400,000 -- in compensation for each of the victims. According to Le Figaro, which claimed access to special reports, meeting notes and official correspondence, the French government was aware of the risk of transmitting the disease from cows to humans as early as 1990. But no serious prevention measures were adopted, the newspaper said, until six years later.

Known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease triggered a panic across Europe last year, although it has been a concern for more than a decade.

Scientists believe humans can contract the Creutzfeldt-Jakob variant by eating tainted beef.

The newspaper cited one "explosive" 1996 report by the French Foreign Ministry that appeared to balance the need for prevention measures with "economic or commercial considerations, and the concern about preserving good diplomatic relations with the British government."

Apparently at issue were French imports of British animal meal, which continued long after Britain banned the feed's domestic use.

Another 1990 memo to a European commercial relations officer warned against news articles that risked "scaring consumers," presumably by citing the dangers of mad cow. The commercial officer who apparently received the fax, Elisabeth Guigou, is now France's employment minister.

Jospin has two months to respond to the compensation requests. After that, the Eboli and Duhamel families threaten to take the matter to court.

Over the past year, both France's Senate and National Assembly also released reports faulting government foot-dragging on mad cow prevention measures.

The latest accusations, however, coincide with new signs mad cow and its human variant may pose less of a risk than earlier feared.

An article in Monday's International Herald Tribune noted so far 113 people have been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob since the disease was identified in 1995.


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