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Report: Mass slaughter of British cows may be needless

COWS

August 29, 1996
Web posted at: 10:40 p.m. EDT (0240 GMT)

From CNN Correspondent Siobhan Darrow

LONDON (CNN) -- British farmers are stirred up over new scientific evidence on the mad cow epidemic that casts serious doubt on the government's policy of mass slaughter of cattle.

The independent report, which suggests the disease will dissipate naturally by 2001, has prompted cattle farmers to demand an urgent meeting with the government to limit the slaughter while opening up European markets to the export of British beef.

In June, European Union leaders agreed on a plan to control mad cow disease in Britain and gradually lift a global ban on British beef sales.

Carcass

The original ban was imposed March 27 after Britain disclosed a possible link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, and its fatal human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The new report by Oxford University has emerged as a hot political issue. Its findings are likely to pressure British officials to renegotiate their agreement with the EU that calls for Britain to kill 147,000 cows in exchange for rights to export its beef.

Citing the university report, Britain's National Farmers Union claims that number is excessive and that only about one-third of the condemned cows need to be slaughtered.

"This report indicates that we can accelerate the reduction in future BSE ... by a different means, by a different targeting system," Ben Gill of the National Farmers Union said.

Getting the EU to agree to that is another matter. Earlier this week, EU officials called for more cows to be killed in light of new evidence about maternal transmission of the BSE disease.

Illness may fade away

The study, led by Oxford University zoologist and epidemiologist Roy Anderson, said most cases of the illness will be transmitted maternally, from mother cows to their calves.

Cow

The rate of transmission -- 340 new infections and 14,000 new cases of BSE before 2001 -- is not enough to sustain the illness, and the government's program of slaughter makes little difference in limiting the spread, the report said.

"The epidemic is in rapid decline before and without any culling. That's the good news," said Christl Donnelly, an Oxford statistician who worked on the study. "But there's also the potential worry in looking at the number of infected animals that entered the food chain."

Cow

She's referring to numbers that indicate a sizable portion of the British meat-eating population may already have been exposed to mad cow disease. The Oxford study said more than 700,000 infected animals have entered the food chain since 1986.

Scientists said it's not clear if this means the fatal disease will actually spread to some of the humans who eat the infected beef.

Future threat remains

Donnelly said not enough about CJD is known to determine whether an epidemic of the disease will infect the British population. But Stephen Dealler, a microbiologist at Burnley Hospital in northern England, predicted that as many as 2 million people may eventually become ill.

"What this does is confirm the skepticism and worries of the British public," said Oxford professor Tim Lang. "These independent scientists have now confirmed that we have eaten a huge number of animals which contained either low or high doses of infectivity."

Also of concern is the possibility that people may contract the disease from simple contact with infected animals and feed.

Farmers

Scientists say the current epidemic of BSE began when cows were fed ground up brains and other remains of sheep infected with scrapie, their own version of the disease. Such feed has been banned.

Regardless of the often contradictory scientific evidence, the real issue for farmers is winning back consumer confidence both at home and in Europe.

As scientists and politicians debate the mad cow dilemma, some agree it's time to look at the bigger picture, including farming practices.

"We need a radical rethink of food and farming policy," Lang said.
(350K AIFF sound or 350K WAV sound)icon

Reuters contributed to this report.

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