Finland confirms first case of mad cow disease

December 7, 2001 Agence France Presse by Paal Aarsaether
Finland, which long prided itself on remaining untouched by mad cow disease, confirmed Friday it had detected its first case of the illness despite more than a decade of tough agriculture regulations.

The Finnish National Veterinary and Food Research Institute said final tests on a six-year-old cow in northern Finland suspected of carrying the disease had proven positive.

"It has been confirmed by a laboratory in Britain, the VLA Institute, that a case of mad cow disease has been found in Finland," Hannele Tapiovaara, head of preliminary laboratory testing at the Finnish institute, told AFP.

Until now Finland had been one of only three European Union countries, along with Sweden and Austria, to have no recorded cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. The director of Finland's Food and Drink Industry Federation, Lea Lastikka, said she was surprised by the first confirmed case and predicted Finns would stop buying beef, at least temporarily.

"This single BSE case will probably lead to a 15 to 20 percent drop in sales of beef in Finland but it will rise again in a few months, as in other countries where the disease has been found," she told AFP.

BSE is linked to the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has killed about 100 people in Britain since the mid-1980s when the disease first came to light.

But a senior food control officer with the National Food Agency, Anna-Maija Groenlund, hastened to assure the public that Finnish beef was safe to eat.

"I think Finnish food is still as safe as it has been," she told AFP.

"We have been testing all sick animals over the age of 24 months -- the risk animals -- for some time, and this case shows that we can detect the risk animals and remove them from the food chain," she said.

Mad cow disease spreads when animals eat infected meat.

The Finnish cow belonged to a herd of 20 milk cows, three calves and 13 heifers from near Oulo, a town some 600 kilometres (375 miles) north of Helsinki, an agriculture and forestry ministry official told AFP.

"The rest of the animals have been killed and destroyed. Nothing from them will enter the food or feed chain," deputy director general Matti Aho said.

The authorities suspect milk replacements given to calves at the farm may be the source of the BSE.

"We are examining the milk replacements given to calves," Aho said. "Ninety nine percent of milk replacements were made in Finland but we imported some from Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark in the 1990s," he said.

"We know that in Japan, (mad cow disease) was caused by milk replacements and the Danish cases are the same, so we are eager to examine this theory," he said.

In the past some countries used animal fat to replace milk fat in milk replacements, Aho explained. "Some used fat from bovine origin and that might have contained meat from contaminated animals," he said.

Most countries now used vegetable fat, he added.

Finland has implemented some of the toughest agricultural regulations in Europe.

The agriculture and forestry ministry said the country banned the import of meat and bone meal -- considered to be the main source of the spread of BSE -- in 1990, and banned the use of domestically-made meat and bone meal in 1995.

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

Norway was the only country in Europe classified as category one, where a BSE case was considered to be highly unlikely, Aho said.

The National Food Agency said all its veterinarians working at slaughterhouses had been instructed as of Friday to routinely test all cows older than 30 months for the disease.

Friday's BSE confirmation comes just one week before the EU is expected to designate the location of a new EU food agency. Helsinki is running against four other European cities to host the new agency.

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