France set to overtake Britain in new BSE cases

December 29, 2001 The Independent (London) by Steve Connor
FRANCE WILL officially report more new cases of BSE than Britain next year for the first time since scientists identified "mad cow" disease in 1986.

An analysis of the rising number of French cattle being diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and the rapidly diminishing scale of the British epidemic, reveals that the cross-over point will be reached in 2002.

The prospect of France becoming the number one European country for recently diagnosed cases of BSE will be acutely embarrassing for the French government which stands alone in Europe in banning beef imports from the United Kingdom on the basis of BSE risk. The scale of the French epidemic, now involving a total of about 500 animals, is still dwarfed by the overall British epidemic, which has seen more than a million infected cattle. But the fact that numbers have risen so fast in France will be exploited by British farmers who want the export ban lifted.

Whereas the number of new cases of BSE in Britain has almost halved each year in the past few years - and plummeted from its annual peak of nearly 37,000 cases in 1992 - BSE in France has risen sharply in each of the past five years.

There were six cases of BSE in France in 1997 but by 2000 the number had risen to 161. In 2001, confirmed cases have reached 258.

If the trends continue, France will overtake the United Kingdom in the second half of next year with no sign of its own home-grown epidemic having peaked.

British farmers have long been suspicious of the degree to which their French counterparts have covered up their cases of BSE - one British joke is that the French acronym for the disease is "JCB" because each suspect animal is buried so quickly.

This suspicion was borne out to some extent after the French government imposed mandatory BSE testing in abattoirs, which revealed many more cases of the disease than would have been reported otherwise. Some scientists argue that if Britain did the same it too would have to revise its BSE figures upwards.

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said better reporting as well as a genuine increase in the number of cases could account for the rising number of official cases in France.

"As much as anything the French figures reflect better detection rates, Professor Ferguson said. "Another hypothesis is that they could be reflecting a late epidemic and this cannot be ruled out."

France is known to have imported thousands of tons of animal feed contaminated with BSE from the United Kingdom at the end of the 1980s before the trade was stopped.

Like Britain, France also rendered the remains of cattle carcasses into animal feed. This continued for several years after the practice was banned in the United Kingdom. This would have helped to spread BSE throughout the French national herd.

In 1996, the European Union imposed a ban on the export of British beef after the discovery of a link between BSE and the human brain disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but this was lifted in 1999 after Britain imposed stricter safety measures. France, however, declared a two-year embargo on British beef imports.

Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice declared that it was illegal for France not to have lifted its import ban on British beef in 1999 with the rest of the European Union. The French government has yet to indicate whether it is ready to comply with the ruling. It faces massive fines if it fails to do so.

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