Mad Cows, Stunned Politicians (5/01)

Not long ago, when mad cow disease (BSE) in the UK was thought to be under control, there was much publicity about the renewed safety of eating British beef. Indeed, when EU sanctions were lifted, German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder went so far as to claim he’d soon be eating some.

Since then, however, German politicians have come under fire for not taking the threat seriously enough. Until mid-November 2000, the government insisted no BSE existed in Germany. Before then, BSE cases and its human variant, vCJD, had been reported only in other parts of Europe. Then it appeared in Germany. Both consumers and farmers became unsure and frightened, and the country’s agriculture policy soon came under increased criticism.

The arrival of BSE was a shock to meat-loving Germans, whose consumption of beef has since fallen drastically. After apparently ignoring EU warnings, German ministers now want stricter testing of young cattle and tougher Europe-wide controls on suspected animal feed. But many people see this as tantamount to shutting the stable door after the mad cow has bolted. Criticism of how the government handled the issue persists, amid allegations that officials knew German beef might have been unsafe almost a year ago.

This criticism is damaging not only the German government but also the agriculture sector as a whole. Due to factory farming conditions, inadequate control of what animals are fed, and ignorance about the substances added to meat, the objections have become more vociferous. As a result, Shroeder now advocates a radical departure from the usual methods of mass producing beef products.

But the German Agricultural Ministry’s plan is actually not smaller farms, but rather farms that are ecologically balanced, with state subsidies to promote quality and transparent production methods from feed preparation to meat on the butcher’s slab. The goal is to calm everyone down.

However, there’s considerable skepticism that meat production methods can be changed so quickly or easily. Germany will also be swimming with the EU current of low beef prices and high returns. Diverting resources to organic farming methods is a possibility, but hasn’t happened yet. Also at issue is whether most consumers are willing to pay a lot more for meat. Late last year, Germany’s Health Minister advised people to eat organic beef, which accounts for only five percent of the beef reared on German farms.

In the end, what’s happened in Germany vindicates the EU, which has repeatedly warned that BSE could be prevalent in Germany. Even so, the crisis must be put in perspective. The number of BSE cases in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe doesn’t compare to the UK outbreak. On the other hand, this still raises the question of whether BSE is more widespread than people think.

A European Enigma

No European country is entirely safe from BSE. Yet, for more than a decade, politicians attempted to contain consumer alarm. As a result, they’ve been accused of ignoring the problem, and even deliberately covering it up. The EU’s common agricultural policy has also been attacked, while dangerous practices on beef farms and in slaughterhouses have been exposed. BSE isn’t only a public health problem, but also a homemade political crisis.

These developments have sparked serious doubts about EU standards for cattle breeding and beef production. European import and export regulations are also under scrutiny. Many people want a complete overhaul of regulations, and enforcement measures to make sure they are followed.

Only two EU countries haven’t reported cases of BSE: Finland and Sweden. The Europe-wide BSE testing which began in January will show if they are truly free of the disease. According to a report from the EU Expert Commission, the following countries outside the EU have a very low risk: Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and Norway. Bringing in meat from such places is possible, but consumers are rapidly losing their taste for it entirely.

Some EU countries have imposed bans on beef imports, as Austria did against Germany. The European Court of Justice permits member states to take such unilateral action if they can’t agree on common measures.

Although beef consumption has dropped dramatically across Europe, this hasn’t been a boom time for cattle farmers in other parts of the world. Even in countries considered BSE free, the crisis atmosphere is spreading and consumer confidence is down.

Apart from an overall mistrust of beef, another reason why imports from outside the EU aren’t being consumed is tax and duty, which makes imported beef expensive. Existing trade agreements limit beef imports, while most EU countries pay a high subsidy to farmers.

The Danish Response

Some countries have known about BSE for years. The Danes, for example, took drastic steps to halt it as early as 1990. But when the country’s first case was discovered in 2000, consumer reaction was swift. Supermarkets and butchers were forced to recall beef.

In early 2000, one Danish cow tested positive for BSE. The Danish Ministry of Food promptly ordered the recall of all products that could contain infected meat. Consumers were advised to destroy any suspect food in their homes. Beef sales plummeted to near zero, but consumers quickly returned following tough official measures to restore confidence.

Since the scare, many meat products have been withdrawn from markets. As consumers switch to less risky products, the meat industry is feeling the pinch. Unsure of what they should take off the shelves, Danish supermarkets have ended up removing everything to do with beef for safety reasons.

Danish farmers stopped feeding bone meal to their cattle in 1990, supporting tough controls and new rules for slaughtering cattle. They know that the slightest suspicion of a slip-up would lead to disaster. But some shoppers remain skeptical, and don’t believe they’ve seen the last case of BSE in Denmark. On the other hand, not all farmers are feeling the pinch. Pig farming accounts for the biggest share of Danish meat production. If the pork industry can avoid infection and disease, the food business in Denmark will remain in reasonably good shape. Most Danish sausages, for instance, contain nothing but pork.

Lax Enforcement

Beyond demonstrating the dangers associated with factory farming, Europe’s BSE crisis has highlighted the limitations of the European political system. In 1997, for example, the EC issued a Europe-wide ban on the processing of high-risk material from cattle. But it took three years for the directive to come into force. Since the disease doesn’t respect dates, the question arises: Why wasn’t this done immediately?

Gregor Kreuzhuber, spokesperson for the EU agriculture minister, welcomed Germany’s eventual decision to implement stricter measures. “But one has to be very clear about responsibilities,” he says. “On the one hand, the EU and the EC bring forth legislation, but it’s up to the member states to implement it and properly control it.

“What we have noticed is a certain lack of implementation and of control,” he adds. “If now the German authorities change gear and try to speed up the necessary process to effectively combat BSE in their country, we will of course be happy.”

This lack of control extends to the business community, where the main concern is what to do with the tons of fodder considered unsafe. Sausages labeled as pork and poultry have been found to contain traces of beef in them. As a result, public confidence in the safety of all meat and meat products has been shaken.

In true European style, finger pointing has been widespread. In Germany, ministers have tried to share the blame with others. The French accuse the British of cutting corners in the production of meat and bone meal feed, specifically not sterilizing it at a high enough temperature, as mandated by EU law. The British, meanwhile, smile as smug neighbors get a dose of embarrassment and humiliation.

The crisis boils down to this: The concerns of scientists were ignored for too long and political responsibility wasn’t clearly delineated. Some even say the crisis is merely a symptom of neoliberalism, namely the decline of independent research. Since much research is now heavily market based, resources may not have been properly channeled, while governments preferred to “leave it to the market” until too late.

Exploring the Options

The BSE crisis won’t go away soon, and Europeans will just have to learn to live with it. Since this January, calls have been issued for mandatory testing of all cattle older than 24 months. Previously, only cattle older than 30 months were tested. The entire herd is supposed to be slaughtered if a single cow tests positive, although some cattle are being spared for scientific purposes.

The crisis has also revealed the true relationship between the EU and the accession countries of the east. For instance, the EU bought up Hungarian corn feed by allowing some concessions, including export of wine to the EU. It looks like the EU is doing accession countries a favor, but it’s actually the other way around.

Consumers and producers have few options. Of course, one is organic farming. This means open stalls, plenty of light and room, and fresh straw. It also means no animal-based feed and soya, nor the use of artificial hormones. For consumers, organic farming has one drawback: The products cost about 30 percent more. Yet, as some point out, meat is basically a luxury item, not something to be eaten every day. And anyway, animals shouldn’t be treated as if they’re crops.

According to most organic food advocates, meat should cost at least double or three times the current price. The long-term goal, they add, is to buy less and concentrate on quality. What you eat has more to do with nature than the factory. This suggests buying locally, and changing the product as little as possible. That way, at least you know exactly where it came from.

Although even organic methods can’t provide complete protection against BSE, the problem hasn’t yet been seen on an organic farm. There’s no absolute guarantee, but organic products clearly minimize the risk. Beyond that, the situation is part of a deeper social problem. Fast food culture has replaced culinary traditions that value quality over quantity. Taking pleasure in food is important, but not at any price.