EU combats 'mad cow' fears

Faced with beef glut, the EU last week unveiled incentives for farmers who produce fewer cattle.

Farmer Jean-Claude Vigneron stands in the wintry sunlight that filters through the slatted walls of his cowshed, tenderly scratching the head of a 10-day-old calf as it nuzzles his knee.

Unless Europe's "mad cow" crisis ends sooner than anyone expects, the newborn bullock will live out its short life on Mr. Vigneron's farm, and then be incinerated.

The waste, says Mr. Vigneron bitterly, "breaks my heart. It's just not right."

The bottom has fallen out of the cattle market as Europeans eat less and less beef, following government scientists' warnings that eating cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) could lead to the human version of the disease.

That will likely cost Vigneron, and hundreds of thousands of farmers like him across the Continent, thousands of dollars each in lost income. The crisis will cost governments and the European Union billions of dollars, officials warn, as they seek to restore consumer confidence.

Farmers and agriculture officials agree that the key to resolving the crisis is restoring public confidence in European beef by testing every animal destined for the shops, and stripping out all organs thought to be especially risky.

There is no evidence that eating the meat - that is, the muscle rather than suspect organs - of a BSE-infected animal is dangerous, but European beef sales have dropped by more than 30 percent since October, and are expected to stay at least 10 percent below normal for the foreseeable future.

Vigneron, who lives on the small farm his grandfather founded in this rural part of France 150 miles southwest of Paris, last sold a bullock in September, just before new cases of "mad cow" disease were discovered in France, Germany, and Spain, sparking a Continent-wide panic.

Since then, Italy - once a big market - has closed its border to French beef. In September, Vigneron sold his bullocks for about $1,000 dollars each. Now, he laments, "there is no price. Nobody wants them. It's simple."

His best hope is that the EU will pay the local abattoir to buy his animals at knock-down prices and then incinerate them, so as to avert a "beef mountain" of millions of tons of meat that would overwhelm storage capacity. That will save him from ruin, but it will mean heavy costs for European taxpayers, who end up paying for such bailouts.

The EU has set aside $1.1 billion in its 2001 budget to deal with the crisis, on top of the $553 million that the 15 member governments will contribute to EU programs.

Most of this money will go to farmers through a "purchase for destruction" program launched last month, under which the EU will buy 500,000 head of cattle and then pay for them to be slaughtered and their carcasses destroyed.

The EU will also pay part of the cost of testing animals for BSE. Every cow over 30 months of age slaughtered in Europe must either be tested and found healthy, or destroyed.

Farmers are demanding direct cash compensation for lost sales. Last Thursday, French cattle farmers let their beasts loose in government offices around the country in support of their claims. But they are unlikely to win satisfaction.

"Our pockets are empty," says Gregor Kreuzhuber, spokesman for the EU's agriculture boss, Franz Fischler. "We've stretched the budget to the limit, and we've got no money for anything other than stabilizing the beef market."

The kinds of costs that Europe could be facing, if more cases of BSE are discovered and the crisis persists, can be estimated from the price Britain has paid since BSE struck its beef industry in 1996.

In Britain, under strict regulations in force for the past five years, any cow more than 30 months old must be destroyed upon slaughter. The government has compensated farmers and paid abattoirs and incinerator operators to the tune of $4.4 billion.

The authorities have spent $1.75 billion on other crisis-related measures, and beef exporters have lost $3.6 billion in foreign sales over the past five years. This all adds up to nearly $10 billion in overall costs, more than 1 percent of Britain's GDP over the same period.

The EU agriculture budget cannot be increased further, under an agreement among member states, so agriculture commissioner Fischler's goal is to reorganize farm-support subsidies to discourage overproduction.

Last week, he unveiled a seven-point plan giving incentives to farmers who produce less beef by farming less intensively, but he acknowledged that it would be a year or so until the measures show any benefits. Beef production, he told the European parliament, "is not like a factory, and the agriculture commissioner is not a foreman who can flick a switch and stop production."

In the meantime, the glutted meat market means hardships for farmers. Not far from the hamlet where Vigneron farms, a friend of his, Veronique Gueret, would like to sell seven older cows from her small milk herd, but she can't.

"I'm a bit afraid of selling at the prices I've heard," she says during a visit to Vigneron's farm. "But I haven't even seen my dealer for the past six weeks. He used to come by every week to see if I had anything to sell, but not any more. And when I rang him the other day, I just got his answering machine."

Vigneron is already doing his bit to boost consumer confidence in meat quality. The BSE crisis, he says, means "we are all going to have to try to produce healthier and healthier food, going for quality not quantity." And this year, for the first time, he is growing legumes to make his own feed, rather than buying industrial cattle feed.

Industrial feed containing animal remains - now banned - is thought to have been responsible for the spread of BSE.

Vigneron worries this drive for quality will not be cheap and that consumers will not be prepared to pay more for it. Instead, he believes, they simply won't buy meat they are unsure about. "It will be a question of selling either high quality or not selling at all," he predicts. "But farming is not going to be so profitable for me any more."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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