Mad Cow Problem Worse Than
Imagined, EU Farm Ministers Hear

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European farm ministers meeting here Monday heard alarming news of the scale of the mad cow disease in the region and the costs needed to tackle it.
"The situation is considerably more dramatic that we had envisaged before Christmas," EU agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler told a press conference during a break in the ministers' meeting, which was also groping for ways of bailing out debt-ridden EU cattle farmers whose tainted stocks were literally going up in smoke.
The ministers agreed overnight to support a total ban on the sale of beef products containing any part of the spinal cord, thought to be a key factor in transmitting bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease.
The move, if adopted, would spell the end of the sale of popular cuts of meet such as T-bone and rib-eye steaks. Such products are already heavily regulated.
These products could contain traces of the animal's nervous system, believed to be the breeding ground for the prion that causes mad cow disease.
Scientists years ago established a link between BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a fatal, brain-wasting disease in humans.
Farmers are suffering the financial fallout of a spiralling consumer scare surrounding mad cow disease, spreading exponentially as new cases pop up almost weekly and cattle tested BSE-positive are incinerated.
"The latest market indications are alarming," Fischler said. "Many third (non-EU) countries have banned EU beef... If this continues, 53 percent of our export capacity will not be utilized... a reduction of 375,000 tonnes this year."
"Given this, we need to consider with member states measures which can be taken quickly," to reduce production, he said, for example cutting back on intensive cattle farming.
Margareta Winberg, farm minister for Sweden, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said that the beef farming sector was on the verge of collapse as sales plummet and international bans increase.
The European Commission presented the ministers with various scenarios. The best-case scenario was an estimated 60 percent drop in European beef exports this year and a 10 percent drop in European beef consumption.
In that case there could be 800,000 tonnes of beef stocks by the end of the year and 1.55 million tonnes by the end of 2002.
Under the more pessimistic predictions these figures could reach 2.3 million tonnes.
The cost of the crisis was put at three billion euros (2.75 billion dollars) for 2001 alone, while the amount available in the EU budget is just 1.2 billion euros.
Agreement by all 15 EU leaders would be needed to boost the European bloc's overall farming budget, which currently stands at 42 billion euros and already represents half of the total EU budget.
The disease has already claimed over 85 lives in Britain, where BSE first emerged in the 1990s as a result of feeding grazing animals the ground-up remains of their own species.
Winberg told the press conference the ministers had lunched on beef preceeding their formal session. But she said she did not know its origin.

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