French BSE report critical of government

April 14, 2001 The Observer by Robert Graham

France's measures to combat mad cow disease were inadequate until last year, according to Afsaa, the national food safety agency.

In an analysis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) disease in France released earlier this week, the agency supported the government's ban last November on animal meat and bone meal.

At the same time it insisted serious concern remained about the possibility of BSE being transmitted not merely to ruminants but all reared species.

A major criticism of past practice concerned the way factories have produced in the same premises feed from animal and bone meal extracts for different species. The report estimates nearly all the feed processing plants have had multi-species production.

This has laid open the possibility of cross-contamination at various stages of the feed production process - from the receipt of raw material to the use of common machinery to transport. On this basis alone Afsaa says it is important to retain the six month-old ban on the use of animal and bone meal for all species.

France has so far registered almost 300 cases of BSE since 1991. The rate of detection has increased since 1996 and more particularly since last autumn when the government introduced widespread testing procedures.

Afsaa suggests the number of cases coming to light could mean there is another source of contamination other than animal and bone meal. To this end it urges "increased vigilance" on the use of tallow and animal fats from ruminants.

The agency also raises questions for the first time about the possible contamination of the water in the processing plants. It says too little study has been devoted to the risks from the prions carrying BSE remaining active in plant water systems.

On the EU-wide reaction to the outbreak of BSE in the UK in 1996, the report says significant amounts of animal and bone meal were still finding their way into the cattle diet as late as 1999. In 1999 the agency estimates between 248 and 667 tonnes of such potentially contaminated feed was consumed by cattle.

Of successive government's bit-by-bit reaction to the evolving BSE crisis, the report observes critically: "This approach has led to a constant overlapping of transitory periods and a semi-official tolerance - deliberate or otherwise - of discrepancies in the regulations."

* France may begin routine tests for mad cow disease on cattle under 30 months old in an effort to calm consumer fears about the illness, Jean Glavany, the farm minister, said yesterday.

"Lowering the age threshold for systematic testing of animals from 30 months to 24 months remains one of the few ways of improving Europe's measures to combat BSE," Mr Glavany said in an interview in La Croix newspaper.

"I think it will come to that in the coming months because the ultimate aim is to restore consumer confidence and start people eating beef again," he added.

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