Food safety alters Europe's farms

As beef sales fall, EU farmers and consumers turn to 'natural' products.

What is deep red, tasty, and twice as popular in France as it was six months ago?

Horsemeat.

As one catastrophic illness after another breaks out among European livestock herds, the crisis is forcing fundamental changes in how farmers raise the continent's food. Sales of organic and free-range products are up sharply. "Locally grown" are the new buzzwords. Green politicians find their views suddenly in the mainstream. And consumers are radically reshaping their eating habits.

"I eat less meat than I used to, and I'm more vigilant about what I do eat," says Dominique Grandin, buying himself a piece of horse steak in Paris. Free-range horseflesh, he adds, is not only more likely to be free of disease. "It has taste, finesse, and it's tender."

Not everyone here has turned to the boucheries chevalines (horse butchers), identified by illuminated horses' heads over their doorways. But with fears that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease will spread beyond Britain and France adding to concerns about a "mad-cow epidemic," Europeans are turning away from beef in droves.

And on a continent that has turned itself into an agro-industrial powerhouse over the past half-century, relying on food and drink for exports of nearly $70 billion a year, widespread animal illnesses are a disaster.

Britain's beef industry almost collapsed in the wake of the mad-cow, or BSE, scare, and European officials are furious that the United States, Australia, and a host of other countries have banned the import of any European meat since foot-and-mouth was found in France. The bans are "excessive and unnecessary," European Union food-safety commissioner David Byrne complained in a speech last week.

But it's the tumbling consumption at home that hurts most. In Germany, beef sales are down by 70 percent since BSE was first discovered there in November. Across the continent, beef sales have dropped by 27 percent.

Over the past year, Europeans have been shocked to find dioxin in Belgian chicken feed and alarmed by the prospect of genetically modified grain in US imports, but it is BSE that has panicked them. Nor is there any sign that the illness, which recently spread to Spain, Germany, and France, will disappear soon, agricultural experts say.

The most dramatic plague to strike farmers, though, is the foot-and-mouth that is currently ravaging cattle, pig, and sheep farms in Britain, where more than 300 outbreaks have been reported in the month since it was first discovered.

Palls of smoke from the giant funeral pyres used to destroy suspect animals hang over the British countryside. About 278,000 animals have been destroyed, or are about to be destroyed, in a bid to prevent the further spread of the disease.

TV reports of tearful farmers watching years of careful breeding go up in smoke, or French voters walking through troughs of disinfectant to polling stations, have focused on the tragedy and the inconveniences of foot-and-mouth. But the harsh economic costs are becoming clear: In Britain alone, the current outbreak will cost $12.9 billion, the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research reported. And the tourism industry has been hard hit.

Experts say foot-and-mouth is highly infectious among cloven-hoofed animals, but poses little risk to humans. Nor is the disease - endemic in most African countries - a result of the modern intensive, mass production farming practices that have been blamed for BSE.

This has not stemmed widespread unease about meat in general, or a growing movement in favor of more naturally raised food. The number of organic farms in Britain has more than tripled since 1997, and a recent parliamentary report there found that "organic farming is one of the few bright spots in the depressed picture of UK agriculture."

German Agriculture Minister Renate Kunast, a Green party member, announced bold plans when she took office last month to concentrate on "quality not quantity" and to boost organic production to 20 percent of the total, up from 3 percent today.

"The BSE scandal marks the end of agricultural policy of the old style," Ms. Kunast told the German parliament. "As from now, the consumer will be protected, not consumption."

She also hopes to protect animals. Germans have expressed revulsion at the new EU policy of paying farmers to slaughter healthy cattle, simply to keep beef prices up by preventing oversupply. Kunast is demanding that individual EU countries be given more freedom to set their own policies, independent of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that fixes uniform subsidies and farming practices continentwide. The CAP, however, is one of the pillars of the EU, and many politicians fear the edifice could crumble if this key element is weakened.

Another break in the ranks was threatening yesterday, as EU agriculture ministers met to discuss the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises. Belgium, Holland, and Portugal, so far free of foot-and-mouth, were arguing for mass vaccinations. Other countries oppose the plan. Vaccinated animals carry antibodies that are hard to distinguish from the virus itself, so countries that vaccinate their livestock are not allowed to export animals.

Until foot-and-mouth is definitively eradicated (which would be possible with enough money, time and effort, say experts) the best means available to halt its spread are mass vaccinations or the destruction of all animals at risk, say veterinarians.

Horses, however, are immune to the disease, and BSE does not affect them either, which has revived a century-old French tradition: eating them. Horsemeat sales are up 89 percent since October, according to Michel Beaubois, president of the French Federation of Horse Butchers.

Horsemeat had been growing increasingly unfashionable, after enjoying a good reputation as a healthful meat for decades. As more and more French children go to riding school or visit petting farms, the horse has changed from a simple farm animal into a pet. "And people don't like to eat their pets," says Aime Savy of the French Meat Office.

Mr. Grandin, buying his horse steak, acknowledges the problem. "I don't spread it about that I eat horse," he says. "A niece of mine loves horses, and there's no question of eating them for her."

Still, Mr. Beaubois is confident that even when the current meat scares pass, horsemeat will remain popular. "People who have eaten it stay with it. We have conquered market share, and we will keep it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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