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BSE scare leads to surge in natural fodder in France

by Julio Godoy

Paris, 21 Nov 2000 (IPS) -- The latest cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the fatal manifestation of “mad cow” disease in humans, has led to a wholesale return to natural animal feed for livestock in France.

The plunge in demand and the crisis of international confidence in French beef is the price being paid for a stockbreeding system based on feeding animal protein to herbivores, say farmers and experts like biologist Claude Alegre, who was serving as education minister until last March.

“The agricultural and stockbreeding production model in vogue in Europe up to now, which favours productivity at the expense of quality, runs against elemental natural precepts,” said Alegre, a professor at the Paris Faculty of Biochemistry.

“The main culprit of the ‘mad cow’ crisis was Britain’s Thatcherist [for former prime minister Margaret Thatcher] economic model of the 1980s, which made profits the only motive governing the economy, even in the area of food,” Alegre maintained.

“By feeding animal meal to herbivores, farmers disrupted the immune systems of cattle,” said the professor. “And on top of that, the animal meal was contaminated.”

That viewpoint is shared by small farmers and stock-breeders grouped in France’s Farmers Confederation. The association is demanding that livestock be fed only on natural animal feed.

“The crisis is the price Europe has to pay for promoting, for years, an economic model in the food sector that favours intensive production and ignores basic standards of quality,” said Jose Bove, leader of the Farmers Confederation and one of the organisers of protests against globalisation.

Large agribusiness interests have also come to believe, albeit reluctantly, that the agricultural and stockbreeding model in effect up to now is no longer viable, due to the crisis of confidence.

“We can produce quality beef without using animal meal. But that quality has a price,” said Luc Guyau, president of the National Federation of Agricultural Exporters, France’s leading agribusiness association.

“The agricultural model in effect until now has been based on a consensus among producers, the government and consumers, with the common denominator of low prices. If producers must change the model, society will also have to change its attitudes towards food, and accept that there is a price to pay for quality,” said Guyau.

France is Europe’s leading stockbreeder. The latest outbreak of panic over “mad cow” disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) was unleashed on Oct 20, when infected beef was detected in supermarkets and slaughterhouses in northern France. On top of that came a growing number of cases of sick cattle documented this year, and reports of a new victim of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). So far, three cases of CJD have been reported in France, according to official figures. The latest was the case of 19-year-old Arnaud Eboli, who is dying.

The other two patients died in 1996 and early this year. CJD was an extremely rare disease in the world, and was only reported among individuals over 55 until 1996, when its connection with BSE was detected in Britain, where 81 people have died since then. The first symptoms of CJD include the loss of memory and coordination, involuntary jerking movements, insomnia, hallucinations and muscular weakness.

The patients rapidly lose the ability to talk or walk. So far, French authorities have documented 183 cases of cattle infected with BSE, while beef consumption has plummeted 40 percent in France. In an attempt to shore up consumer confidence, the French government issued a ban last week on the use of animal proteins in feed for poultry, farm-reared fish, and pigs.

In 1990, France prohibited the use of meat and bone meal in fodder for ruminant animals, and in 1996, it banned the use of BSE-related, high-risk materials like nervous systems and animal carcases.

The government also decided to ban sales of certain cuts of beef, like ribs, on evidence that they could be vectors of the BSE-carrying “prion” protein, as well as the use of cattle bone meal in the manufacture of gelatin.

In addition, the French government plans to provide incentives for the cultivation of oil-seeds like soybean and rapeseed for use as fodder, and to increase financing for research into BSE and CJD. European countries today are net importers of oilseeds, due to production quotas set in 1993 by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which authorised Europe to limit production to just 25 percent of its needs.

The government’s announcement of a blanket ban on the use of animal proteins in fodder was greeted by a headline in ‘Le Monde’ that read, “As of Today, By Government Order, French Cows Will Once Again Be Herbivores.” The newspaper also published a long report on stock-breeding in South America.

“Argentine cattle run around all day on the juicy grass of the pampas.  Here in Argentina, mad cow disease does not exist, and will never exist, because cattle feed exclusively on fresh grass,” wrote correspondent Christine Legrand.

The French government’s plan will cost a total of around $1 billion, which does not include state subsidies to stock-breeders and farmers, announced Tuesday with a $520 million price-tag. French authorities are touting their plan as the most rigorous system of controls against mad cow disease in the world. But the government has failed to restore consumer confidence, and indeed the announced measures seem to have had the opposite effect.

CREDOC (France’s research and study centre for the monitoring of living conditions) reported this week that beef consumption had plummeted by around 40 percent. Added to the plunge in domestic consumption are embargoes on French beef declared this week by Austria, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Morocco and Russia.

France also promised the European Union Monday that it would not export animal meal. France produces around one billion tonnes a year, which must now either be burnt or stockpiled. The French government’s bid to get the EU to issue a blanket ban on the use of animal proteins in fodder has been unsuccessful.

“The lack of confidence in French beef is a paradox,” said Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

“It is precisely because our country exercises the strictest controls that we have detected cases of infected cows. But for that reason, other countries, which carry out no controls, believe it is dangerous to consume French beef. That conclusion is unfair and incorrect.”

No one knows how the cows were infected with BSE, since France banned the use of meat and bone meal in cattle fodder in 1990, and extended the ban in 1996.

There are fears now that the disease is hereditary, transmitted from mother to calf through milk, or even transmitted from one species to another, given that animal proteins were still authorised in feed for poultry and fish until last week.

BSE is one of a group of infectious diseases affecting both humans and animals, about which little is known. They are not caused by viruses or bacteria, but by a non-living agent, a special kind of “prion” protein, believed to produce a slow biochemical reaction that modifies the protein molecules in the brain. The brain gradually acquires the consistency of a sponge, and the victim eventually dies.

“Prion” proteins do not seem to trigger any response from the patients’ immune systems. The proteins are very stable and can survive extreme temperatures, radiation and antiseptics that kill other infectious agents.

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