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Britain rethinks 'mad cow' slaughter

September 19, 1996
Web posted at: 11:20 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Margaret Lowrie

cow

LONDON (CNN) -- Opposition to the slaughter of cows may force two governments to rethink their plans to cull cows suspected of carrying the deadly "mad cow" disease.

In Switzerland Thursday, about 1,000 angry farmers drove their tractors down a major highway to protest plans to kill 230,000 head of cattle there. Switzerland is second only to Britain in the number of cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as "mad cow" disease.

The British government is contemplating reducing its intended slaughter of 147,000 cows based on research that suggests the kill may not be necessary. Data from an Oxford University study indicates the disease could die out naturally within five years.

However, among Britons who make their living from livestock, there is little support these days for the British government's proposal to reduce the cull. And, the European Union wants Britain to follow through with the original plan.

"The cull to start with is silly, but all right, they have given their word that they were going to cull, and so they have to get on with it and not muck about," British farmer David Prosser said.

Jim Watson of Midland Livestock Marts agreed. "Having gone so far now with this cull, we have got to complete it. We can't stop halfway," he said.

On this issue, British farmers and the EU find themselves in rare accord, although for different reasons.

The British government promised to slaughter up to 147,000 cattle most at risk for BSE to get the EU to lift its worldwide ban on British beef sales. The ban was imposed in March after Britain unveiled evidence that people could get a similar illness, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, by eating infected beef.

The government is now using the new Oxford study to argue that the cull could be cut by one-third, and still be just as effective. The European Commission, in response, said it would study the report, but the cull must continue.

"If it shows a more efficient way of taking out infected animals, fine, but it is not an excuse for delaying the selective cull," said the European Commission's agricultural spokesman, Gerard Kiely.

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Farmers say if the slaughter proceeds, they want a firm timetable for ending the ban.

"We want to know where we are as far as the cull is concerned, which animals are likely to be identified for the cull and, at the same time, we want the assurance that if British agriculture goes through the pain of a cull, we get the reward of the lifting of the ban," Tony Pexton of the National Farmers Union said.

While politicians thrash out policy, consumer confidence seems to be creeping back. In Banbury, England, beef sales are practically normal. "The trade dropped down, but it's picking back up now," butcher Vincent Spittle said.

Some officials think Britain should forget Europe and rely on its domestic appetite to sustain an "island beef economy." But farmers say they won't be happy until British beef is back on dinner plates around the world.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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