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EU extends tests for mad cow disease

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- European Union agricultural ministers have agreed to extend testing to all cattle aged over 30 months in an effort to stamp out mad cow disease.

The tests will apply to cattle which are healthy and show no signs of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), said Beate Gminder, spokeswoman for the EU Commissioner on Tuesday.

Ministers agreed that from the beginning of next year all animals that show neurological symptoms of mad cow disease and aged over 30 months will be tested throughout the EU. Cattle showing no signs of the disease and in the same age group are expected be tested from July.

The cost of the tests is expected to reach nine million euros ($7.7 million) and could target as many as six million animals.

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The move comes amid growing consumer fears about the spread of BSE and its link to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, vCJD, the human form of the fatal brain-wasting disease.

vCJD is estimated to have killed two people in France so far and more than 80 in Britain.

Gminder said extended testing was necessary to reassure the public. "We need to guarantee consumers that we are doing our utmost, whether BSE is in our member states' cattle or not. We have to reassure them."

The ministers also agreed to a scientific review of the ban imposed by some EU countries on imports of French cattle and beef.

"A procedure is now in place to carry out a test on the validity of these measures," French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany said.

Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands have restricted imports of live cattle from France, which has taken steps to prevent the spread of the disease.

Glavany said he was happy with the decision, which means the Commission will, on the basis of scientific advice, give a verdict on the measures before the end of November.

After that date, the measures against French cattle and beef must either be lifted or expanded to include other EU members.

Testing measures fall short of demands

But the testing falls short of French and European Commission demands.

France, which has banned the sale of T-bone steaks and all animal feed made from ground-up cattle, so called meat and bonemeal, had called for a complete ban on the produce in an effort to avoid isolation within the union.

Over the weekend, French authorities moved to soothe consumers' fears about BSE, taking out full-page newspaper advertisements under the headline "Why you can eat beef without fear." Beef sales in France have plunged by 40 percent in recent weeks.

European Commissioners had proposed BSE-testing for all older cattle in the EU.

David Byrne, the commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection said he had wanted a comprehensive BSE-testing of all bovine animals, above a certain age.

Byrne said, before the meeting on Monday, there must be "no false assurances."

He added: "We must make known the risks and the protective measures which we have introduced to tackle those risks.

"At the community level, we have put in place a comprehensive series of controls which I am satisfied reduce the risk to a very low level."

Franz Fischler, responsible for Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development, said: "I am convinced that farmers agree with me that it is of utmost importance to restore public trust in beef products."

Current BSE-tests can only be applied on the brain of a dead animal during a post-mortem.

A limited testing programme on an estimated 170,000 animals at risk was due to have come into force across the EU on January 1.

But some member states, which currently have no BSE, baulked at the cost of the tests at about $25 per head of cattle.

Other member states have already started their testing programme, including France which has experienced a rise in cases.

BSE was first identified in Britain in the 1980s, as it swept through the cattle herd via infected animal feed.

At its height, there were thousands of new cases every month and millions of cattle have been slaughtered at a huge cost to British taxpayers.

The EU banned all British beef exports in March 1996, dealing a devastating blow to the country's livestock industry.

The ban was eased last year although France continues to block British beef. Now, several EU countries have announced unilateral import restrictions on French beef following the mad cow scare there.

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The European Commission
The official mad cow disease page
Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE)

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