EU ministers agree on massive cattle testing


Following all-night negotiations, European Union farm ministers decided Tuesday to test cattle over 30 months old for mad cow disease next year, a massive increase in testing in an attempt to counter the growing public health crisis.

Cattle over that age judged to be at higher risk from the brain wasting disease will be tested as of Jan. 1 and the testing program will be expanded to all cattle categories over 30 months old as of July 1.

“The principle to also test healthy animals has been welcomed” by the farm ministers’ meeting, said Beate Gminder, spokeswoman for EU Health Commissioner David Byrne, stressing the controls will extend to countries where no cases of mad cow have been discovered.

“It will give the consumers the assurance that their beef is being tested,” said Gminder.

The ministers also agreed that scientists will assess bans on French beef imports by Spain, Italy and Austria and offer an opinion within two weeks on their validity. The EU’s executive Commission will take action based on their recommendations.

France has implemented a temporary ban on all livestock feed containing meat and bone meal and sales of T-bone steaks and sweetbread to protect the food chain after beef, potentially infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, made it onto supermarket shelves last month.

A call to ban all livestock feed containing meat and bone found no majority at the meeting, a German official said. Such feed represents some 1.5 billion euros (US$1.275 billion) in the EU and destroying it would cost about double. Finding replacement feed would add another 700 million euros (US$595 million) to the bill, EU officials said.

BSE has been linked to the fatal human brain ailment Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and consumers have shied away from beef as a result. Cases of BSE discovered in France have increased almost threefold over the last year to 90 and beef consumption in France had crashed by 40 percent since.

Beef prices in the EU have already slumped 5.9 percent because of a drop in demand, said Gregor Kreuzhuber, EU agriculture spokesman.