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BSE wipes out 65-year heritage

Farmer Philippe Janssens
Farmer Philippe Janssens must rebuild his herd  

Corroy-le-Grand, Belgium (CNN) -- For the Janssens family, farming is not merely a job -- it is a way of life. So when mad cow disease hit the herd there was no alternative but to start again.

Five weeks ago, with the discovery of a single case of BSE, they were forced to slaughter their entire herd of 274 head of beef and milk cattle.

The herd the Janssens had been breeding and developing since 1936 -- including pregnant cows and day-old calves -- were condemned to death.

Since the beginning of this year all cattle in the European Union over the age of 30 months must be tested for mad cow disease after they have been slaughtered but before the meat enters the food chain.

Several days into January one of the animals sent by the Janssens to market tested positive for mad cow.

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Philippe Janssens, with his brother Bernard, took over the family farm from their father 20 years ago.

He explained: "We were told about it on a Monday. By Wednesday the authorities started loading the rest of the herd. By Friday the barns were empty."

So far, the rest of the herd has tested negative. But the law dictates every animal in a herd where BSE is present must be slaughtered.

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The tests are carried out after the carcasses have been injected with a dye identifying them as unfit for consumption.

"We thought the best way to turn the page was to start over again as quickly as possible," Philippe said.

The farm stayed empty for just one week before the Janssens were shopping around for new cattle to take the place of the condemned herd.

But they are well aware history could repeat itself if any new livestock they send for slaughter test positive for BSE.

"We have maybe bought a contaminated animal - you can never be sure," Philippe said. "The animal that tested positive didn't have any symptoms.

"We were never confronted with this infamous shaking syndrome -- the wobbly cow that you see on television all the time".

BSE -- transmissible to humans as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease -- is believed to be caused by animal feed containing contaminated animal parts.

BSE cattle
Even young calves in the Janssens herd were destroyed  

The Janssens grow most of their own animal feed. "We were certainly surprised as well as shocked," Philippe added.

"We couldn't understand it -- we didn't think we bought in enough food from outside to even be at risk."

The local veterinary surgeon who supervises the Janssens farm described the slaughter of the entire herd as "a massacre." Vet Michel Delvaux said the new laws are "draconian."

"I still don't understand why the milk cows had to be slaughtered since there is no evidence that BSE is present in milk," Delvaux said.

"Maybe slaughter the direct descendants of the contaminated animal and maybe destroy those of the same age that might have shared the same food. But I don't see the point in killing animals of a few days old just because they were born on the same farm."

He said Belgium has carried out 30,000 tests since the beginning of the year and in cases where BSE has been detected it has been limited to one contaminated animal per herd.

"We have never had more than one case per farmer," he said. "This systematic slaughter has destroyed generations of breeding -- a whole genetic encyclopedia of breeding created by the Janssens family has been lost for ever."

State of shock

To be on the safe side, the authorities are testing every animal in the Janssens old herd over the age of two years. None of the animals horizontally or vertically related to the contaminated beast have tested positive.

Both farmer and vet explain there is no live test for BSE. The test must be carried out on the brain of a dead animal. But they are hoping a live test will soon be available.

"It would mean we wouldn't have to destroy a whole herd and it also means we would know about the problem and be able to react more quickly," Philippe said.

"I hope research will develop quickly so we can test animals without killing them first."

His wife, Marie-Astrid, said the family were in a state of shock when the news was broken to them.

"We were constantly asking ourselves if the authorities hadn't made a mistake somehow," she said. "We had the impression the earth had opened beneath us -- there was a huge hole. It was like being in front of a wall without having the means to climb it."

Mrs Janssens said she couldn't watch the animals being loaded for slaughter. "It was very hard to see our animals go" she said.

"We had a relationship with our animals. We live with them constantly. We know them, we know their reactions, they know us. I think that was the hardest and that took the greatest courage -- to let them go."

The family said they were inundated with letters expressing sympathy for their plight from all over the country.

"Everyone in the village came and stood at the farm to show their solidarity when the animals were being taken away," she said.

"There was the feeling that everything we created in 20 years was annihilated in three days. If we didn't have the people there and their support I think we would have cracked".

There was "never any question", she said, of abandoning farming for another profession. "My 17 year old son is at agriculture college and we hope he'll take over from my husband one day," she said.

Mrs Janssens said the family is still coming to terms with the loss of the old herd. "Even though the stables are filling up with new cattle its not the same and we still haven't accepted it" she said.

She added: "It is too soon to know the new herd and have favourites among them. Maybe when the spring comes and the fields are full and the first calf is born on the farm then perhaps we will realise it hasn't all been a bad dream."

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Public Health
Human BSE Foundation
Incidence of BSE in Europe
BSE in Belgium
EC - Frequently asked questions about BSE

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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