History repeats itself in French BSE affair
Vache folle – or mad cow disease – has
dominated the headlines in France again
this week. The parallels with what was
going on in the UK four years ago are
quite startling, as Europe editor
Philip Clarke, explains
MONITORING developments in France over BSE in recent days leaves one with a tremendous sense of déjà-vu.
For example, the claim by farm minister, Jean Glavany, that "I eat beef, and so do my children", brought images flooding back of former UK farm minister, John Gummer, stuffing a burger into his reluctant young daughters face.
Mr Glavanys enthusiasm for French beef, unlike most of his fellow citizens, is just as infectious. "I eat beef, my children eat beef, all the scientists most informed about BSE eat beef….and so do their children," he claimed last week.
"Zero risk does not exist," he went on, "but maximum precautions are taken in France, infinitely more than in all other European countries, so there is no need to give in to this psychosis."
The trouble is, just like the British public four years ago, the French public simply does not believe him.
They have come to realise that failure to remove all specified risk materials in the early stages, combined with the continued use of meat and bonemeal in non-ruminant feeds has led to a recycling of BSE and cross-contamination.
They are also waking up to the fact that whole herd slaughter, where cases of BSE are found, is no guarantee that animals carrying the disease are not getting into the food chain elsewhere.
As such, schools have continued to take beef off the menu, abattoirs have laid off staff as throughput has tumbled, beef prices have come under renewed pressure and some foreign markets have started to shut their doors to French exports. Sounds familiar?
There are other similarities. Farm groups have called on government to introduce a slaughter policy for older animals.
As in the UK, they believe that only by taking such drastic action can public confidence be restored.
So far government has resisted this call, saying it will only add to the psychosis. No doubt it is also wary of the cost. Initial estimates for destroying about 1.3m animals and compensating farmers are put at 20bn francs (£2bn).
The logistics of introducing such a slaughter scheme are also dissuasive. To qualify for any help from Brussels it would have to go though all the same hoops the UK went through in 1996, setting up dedicated slaughter lines and extended incineration facilities.
Then there is the subject of meat and bonemeal. As in the UK, French feed manufacturers have been keen to wash their hands of all responsibility.
Initially, government was reluctant to extend the ban from ruminant to non-ruminant rations. Apart from the science, there were the logistical problems of incinerating 3m tonnes a year of animal waste and the cost of importing replacement vegetable proteins.
This week, however, it reluctantly gave into public pressure and introduced a moratorium.
There is a school of thought that says, once the French come to realise just how onerous all these controls are, they will come to accept that the system already in place in the UK is the best. They may then lift their ban on British beef.
That, however, sounds like wishful thinking.
In the height of the latest controversy in France, Mr Glavany has been quick to remind his people who he thinks is to blame for the BSE crisis.
"It is clear that the cause of this mad cow epidemic in France is the importation of English meat and bonemeal 10 years ago. No one can contest that we were exposed and this has put us in the situation were in today," he said.
As ever, Mr Glavany is looking to shift the blame – another case of déjà-vu?