- (AFP) - French farmers seeking to allay fears about
mad cow disease offered grilled beef to passers-by in Lille. Beef sales
have dropped since a French farmer was arrested for knowingly selling a
diseased cow three weeks ago.
- Christophe Calais for The New York Times
- At a slaughterhouse in Limoges, beef orders are down
30 percent in the last two weeks and some days, production has shut down
- LIMOGES, France - At lunch time in a city-owned slaughterhouse
here, employees began spraying hot water and disinfectant across the bloodstained
cement floors, putting lids on the containers of identification tags taken
from cows as they were killed and sharpening knives so that work could
begin again in the afternoon.
- But for the last two weeks, an afternoon shift has not
always been needed. Orders at the slaughterhouse are down by 30 percent.
At the Paris wholesale meat market, business has been worse, with sales
of beef dropping by nearly 50 percent on some days. Television crews have
shown farmers returning home with their prize-winning cows, unable to sell
them at any price.
- Throughout France, the public is in an increasing panic
about the spread of mad cow disease. It is a frenzy based more on fear
than fact, because the number of cases in France remains minuscule compared
with the epidemic that hit Britain a few years ago. Still, that has not
stopped dozens of school districts ó including all public schools
in Paris ó from eliminating beef in their cafeterias. Politicians,
including President Jacques Chirac, have been calling for new safety measures.
Even some of the country's top chefs are debating whether to keep beef
on their menus. And some countries, reacting to France's panic, are refusing
to purchase the beef.
- "We have never seen anything like this before,"
said Jean-Yves Jouveau, the director of the slaughterhouse in Limoges,
at the center of a region that specializes in raising cattle for beef.
"It's very discouraging for some of the farmers around here who have
worked all their lives and they see it all going wrong. The country is
locked now into this collective fear, and no matter what it will take a
long time to recover."
- The number of reported cases of the disease has been
rising steadily in France this year. The real panic in France set in three
weeks ago after a farmer was arrested for trying to sell a diseased cow
for slaughter. The authorities were able to intercept the cow, but not
before thousands of pounds of suspect meat from the same herd had been
- Coverage of the arrest only seemed to encourage what
the French are calling a "psychose" ó a hysterical fear.
Television stations broadcast lengthy documentaries on the human form of
the disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. When one program featured some particularly
emotional footage of a British girl paralyzed by the incurable disease
that destroys the brain, the national anxiety seemed to skyrocket.
- Within days, sales of beef products were dropping. Even
McDonalds, which immediately augmented a television and radio campaign
on the quality of its beef, has seen a 10 percent decline in hamburger
orders. The 215-outlet Buffalo-Grill restaurant stopped serving beef on
the bone. And many consumers began avoiding beef entirely.
- "I have not bought beef in a week," said Martine
Monnot, who lives in Paris and has two children. "I'm worried like
everyone else. You just can't be sure of anything right now. Are we getting
good information about this stuff? You just never know. This weekend I
had guests and I often buy steaks, but I just didn't."
- Others, like Catherine de Vignon, did not cut beef out
altogether, but stopped buying beef in supermarkets. At least her neighborhood
butcher knows where the meat comes from, Mrs. De Vignon said. "Sometimes
its so much easier to just buy everything at the supermarket. But I'm finished
with that. Never, never now."
- French consumers are not the only ones rejecting French
beef. In the last two weeks, Russia has imposed strict restrictions, Poland
and Hungary have banned it and Spain is considering doing the same. Britain,
which survived a ban by the European Union on its beef, has taken no action
ó even though France continues to boycott British beef.
- For some of France's farmers the crisis has been jolting.
Joel Bonnaud, who has 250 head of cattle on his farm near Parthenay, about
210 miles southwest of Paris, took 20 to the local market last week and
returned home with all of them. "It was such a shock," said Mr.
Bonnaud, 52. "I knew there was trouble but not to this extent. It
was not even a question of price. Nobody wanted them."
- Keeping the animals means Mr. Bonnaud is without cash
to run his business and still paying the cost of feeding the already fattened
animals. He is also worried about the future for his two children, who
hope to make their living as farmers.
- "Today everything looks so bleak for us," he
said. "I think the market will come back, but we are headed for some
tough times right now."
- The handling of the crisis may well have significant
political consequences for France's archrivals, President Chirac and the
Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Within a week of the farmer's
arrest, Mr. Chirac got on television to call for new safety measures. While
many questions remain about mad cow disease, efforts to prevent the disease
in cows have centered on eliminating animal feed that contains infected
animal parts. A ban on such feed has existed in France since 1996. But
Mr. Chirac called for such feed to be at least temporarily banned for other
animals too, a move intended to prevent any accidental feeding of animal
parts to cows.
- The next day Mr. Jospin dismissed his request, saying
there was no scientific basis for it. He promised only that the country's
food health agency would review it. His agriculture minister, Jean Glavany,
felt compelled to assure the French public that "I eat beef, my children
eat beef, as the scientists most specialized in BSE eat beef, as do their
- [But on Tuesday, Mr. Jospin went on television himself.
In a 45-minute speech, he gave a professorial lecture on what is known
about the disease, before calling for the ban that Mr. Chirac had urged.
Mr. Jospin also asked for a temporary ban on T-bone steak as well, because
the agents believed to cause the human version of mad cow have been found
in bone. The new measures followed the release of a daily newspaper poll
that gave Mr. Chirac high scores for his handling of the issue and how
he tried to calm national fears.
- [On the same day, government officials reported three
new cases of mad cow, bringing the total so far this year to 99.]
- Last year, France recorded just 31 cases of the disease.
The rising numbers are in part due to a new testing program that focuses
on cows that are most at risk. That program has identified 39 cases. But
still 60 new cases were identified in the usual way, far more than were
found in 1999. Many scientists had expected that this year, five years
after safety precautions were put in place, the number of cases would be
- The rise in cases has prompted some scientists to question
whether the disease can be transmitted in ways not yet understood. Scientists
are still puzzled by the disease, first recognized in cows in 1986.
- It appears that it is not caused by a bacteria, virus
or fungus, but stems from infectious particles called prions, perhaps in
concert with a virus or other agent. The disease kills cells in the brain,
leaving it spongy and full of holes.
- France has taken more steps to ensure safety than most
European countries, including refusing to take English beef in defiance
of the European Union. But some scientists believe that France has not
been effective in imposing the ban on feed that contains animal parts.
- Some French officials hope that the sudden interest in
mad cow disease will mean that French consumers will become educated about
it, thereby recognizing that French beef is actually rigidly controlled.
Every cow is given a passport at birth, and extensive information about
its parentage and where it was raised must be submitted to any slaughterhouse.
When a diseased animal is found, the entire herd is destroyed.
- "I have to say that it is galling that countries
like Poland and Hungary don't want our beef, " said Alain Rodet, the
mayor of Limoges. "These are countries that have no record whatsoever
when it comes to environment and health issues and we have done so much.
But it seems like the more we do, the more frightened people become. The
French have a fragile psyche on the issue of food."
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