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Countries ban British beef over health fears

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11 million cattle could be killed

March 21, 1996
Web posted at: 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT)

From Correspondent Rob Reynolds

LONDON (CNN) -- Britain raised the possibility of destroying its entire herd of 11 million cattle on Thursday as panic over the possible health risk of British beef swept across Europe.

France and Belgium banned British beef and beef products Thursday, and Germany asked the European Union to ban all British beef exports.

British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell prompted further disquiet when he said Britain has not ruled out destroying its entire cattle herd to stop the disease from spreading.

"It's certainly not a recommendation but it's one of the options that's open," Dorrell said.

Experts say such a move could cost Britain over $30 billion in compensation.

The concern stems from new scientific research that reveals likely links between "mad cow disease" -- known as BSE -- and its fatal human equivalent, CJD, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

The disease attacks brain matter and literally riddles the brain with holes, like a sponge.

Dorrell issued an emergency statement Wednesday. In it, he said, "There remains no scientific proof that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef, but the committee has concluded that the most likely explanation is that these cases are linked to BSE."

Why worry now?

beef

BSE first appeared in British cattle about 10 years ago. It's believed to have been caused by the use of animal feed containing ground-up sheep parts -- a factory-farming technique widespread in Britain but not common in other countries.

The extremely rare human equivalent, CJD, is caused by the same virus that causes BSE.

For a decade, Britain's conservative government strenuously denied any link between eating beef and getting CJD. One agriculture minister even invited camera crews to film him feeding a hamburger to his 4-year-old child.

The agriculture department, however, did order new safety measures in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants. The measures were enacted to make sure that no animal parts infected with BSE -- such as brains and spines -- made it to market.

However, new cases of CJD found in humans has now led the government to change its stance. Although the disease is still very rare -- only 54 cases were reported in Britain in 1994 -- the numbers are rising.

Some experts believe the increase is a result of the disease lying dormant for 10 or more years, which frightens many doctors and scientists.

"At this stage, we have to say its totally unpredictable," said John Pattison with the British Government Advisory Committee. "But at one extreme there is a risk of an epidemic."

Epidemic possible

Peter Hall

Dr. Stephen Dealler, who conducts BSE research, agrees, saying Britain should prepare for an epidemic. (105K AIFF sound or 105K WAV sound)

Last month, Frances Hall witnessed her 20-year-old son, Peter, die of CJD.

"He couldn't feed himself, he couldn't toilet himself, he couldn't dress himself," she said. "He wasn't speaking at all by then."

The British government continues to downplay fears and says British beef is fundamentally safe. But some politicians, as well as British citizens, have pressed the government to act more cautiously.

In fact, thousands of British schools have banned beef after parents voiced concerns, and in the past four years British beef consumption has dropped by about 12 percent.

U.S. avoids British beef

cow

The United States has not imported livestock or processed meat from Britain since 1989, according to Jackie Knight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA enforces similar stringent restrictions on beef from countries where BSE exists.

The USDA has a surveillance program that has examined over 2,660 specimens from 43 states. No BSE has ever been detected in U.S. beef, Knight said.

Live animals brought to the United States prior to the 1989 ban are being monitored every six months by the USDA for BSE, Knight said.

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