BSE scare threatens EU budget
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union's agriculture budget could be stretched to breaking point by the mad cow disease crisis, its farm policy chief has warned.
Consumers are turning their backs on beef with consumption dropping by an average of 27 percent, Franz Fischler said.
He added that many non-EU countries have banned imports from the EU, threatening to create a huge market surplus with no outlet.
The latest BSE scare took hold as a number of EU countries -- previously thought to be almost BSE-free -- recorded new cases and an incident in France where potentially contaminated meat was found in supermarkets.
As more evidence emerges that the brain-wasting disorder, linked to the human version, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), has spread beyond the EU, governments in Europe are struggling to cope with consumer panic and the collapse of the beef trade.
Fischler said: "The crisis on the beef market goes further than one might think. The latest market indications are alarming.
"Buying into public intervention is not only no solution for budget restrictions but also for storage capacity limitation.
"If we do this, farm expenditures would simply explode, which would lead to cuts in other agriculture sectors."
He was speaking as Britain announced that it was increasing inspections of German beef after officials found the remnant of a spinal cord in a consignment of cattle carcasses imported from Germany.
Spinal cords are considered one of the "specified risk materials" -- such as brains and nerve tissues -- that are key to the spread of mad cow disease.
British inspectors said they found the spinal cord remnants during routine inspections of a shipment of 19,000 kilograms (41,800 pounds) of beef from Oldenburg, Germany to a meat cutting plant in Eastbourne, southern England.
The seizure followed a similar find two weeks ago in Northern Ireland in another shipment of 40,000 kilograms (88,000 pounds) beef from Germany, officials said.
Sir John Krebs, chairman of Britain's Food Standard Agency, said now every German beef carcass entering Britain would be subject to automatic inspection. The tougher inspections will begin at midnight on Monday.
The EU ministers were meeting to debate new emergency public protection measures designed to shore up confidence in the beef market.
EU food safety Commissioner David Byrne said they had supported calls from scientists to remove the veterbral column from the food chain over fears it could contain the disease.
In a move with implications for the sale of T-bone steaks, he said he would make a proposal in the coming weeks, sticking "as closely as possible" to scientific advice that the vertebral column should be removed in countries where it could be shown that a ban on meat-based animal feed was not strictly enforced.
The 40 billion euro a year ($37 billion) farm budget swallows around half of all EU centralised expenditure.
Fischler urged member states to take advantage of the so-called purchase for destruction scheme, a special six-month programme that pays farmers to have their older cattle destroyed.
"The scheme is simply a lesser evil. It is cheaper and offers a solution to farmers who cannot sell their animals," he said.
"It disposes of the lowest quality beef at the lowest price and hence reduces the surplus and it creates a minimum price on the market for the benefit of producers."
The optional purchase scheme had only been used fully in France and the Republic of Ireland and, to a lesser extent, in Spain and Luxembourg, Fischler noted.
German farmers, in particular, have been reluctant to use the scheme. Britain, which has long had a ban on meat over 30 months entering the food chain, has an exemption.
In a separate move, Finland has become the latest country to ban blood donations by people who lived in Britain for at least six months in the 1980s or early 1990s.
The measure, which comes into effect on April 1, 2001, follows nine other countries, including Austria, Germany, Italy and France.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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