11 February 2000

French given 25-day deadline to answer EU BSE allegations

By Philip Clarke

FRANCE has been given 25 days to react to accusations that it has under-reported BSE cases and failed to keep meat and bonemeal out of cattle feed.

EU vets, who visited the country last summer, found particular shortcomings in surveillance practices. "Notification of suspect BSE cases by farmers occurs with a certain hesitation and, in some cases, a considerable delay, (one month)," they said in a report out this week.

Problems with the French definition of "BSE suspect" had also contributed to the under-reporting.

In particular, the authorities only investigated animals showing symptoms for over 15 days and did not consider any beast under 24 months old as potentially having BSE. Fallen stock were also excluded.

There was also evidence that BSE had been ruled out in some suspects without a proper investigation. "In one case, the animal had clear neurological signs, was aggressive and was fed with concentrates," notes the report. "The working hypothesis was a cervical lesion. The animal was declared a non-legitimate suspect and was sent directly for emergency slaughter without further examination."

The report also criticises the lack of training of veterinary inspectors and farmers to spot BSE. "The owner of one confirmed case declared not to have been informed about the clinical signs of the disease."

As for feeding practices, the inspectors found cross-contamination of cattle feed with meat and bonemeal (still used in non-ruminant rations in France). "The proportion of MBM-contaminated samples has settled at a level of 6% during the last two years," says the report, though it notes that only 1.4% is above the EU maximum of 0.1% inclusion.

There was also insufficient labelling and sample testing of animal feeds, and a lack of traceability between different regions of France to track down cohorts of BSE casualties.

French farm leaders have been quick to defend their corner, accusing the commission of spreading misinformation to discredit their industry. "French farmers are the best in Europe in matters of traceability, identification and complying with health rules. These accusations are unacceptable," said Luc Guyau, president of Frances principle farming union, the FNSEA.

But the NFU says it is not surprised by the commissions findings – "it confirms what we have been saying all along" – and welcomes the recommendations made.

These include improved training and the inclusion of fallen stock as BSE suspects. Clear instructions should also be given to teach manufacturers how to avoid MBM contamination, and feed sampling should be stepped up. &#42