'Cow madness' perils British farm family Herd is unsellable: Two generations of a British farm family wonder if they'll ever recover from the "emotion and controversy" caused by "mad cow disease."

March 26, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BANBURY, England -- Harry Colegrave is 73 years old and has been fattening cattle for slaughter nearly all his life. He has lived through economic booms, busts and outbreaks of disease, but he has never before encountered a full-blown panic like the "mad cow" frenzy that is sweeping Britain and Europe.

"We've recovered from problems before and we'll recover again," he says. "People eat meat."

But Mr. Colegrave's 40-year-old son, John, isn't so sure that the country's $6 billion meat industry will rebound after yesterday's European Union ban on British beef imports.

"This is serious," John Colegrave says. "I wonder whether this time we'll ever come back."

The Colegraves are like many other small farmers in Britain as they try to assess the damage in the wake of a health scare that has brought the British beef industry to despair.

"Science is out the window," John Colegrave says. "Emotion and controversy have taken over from logical argument."

The panic was ignited last week when it was revealed that 10 young Britons had been afflicted with a strain of the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal illness associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known

as "mad cow disease."

Yesterday, while European Union bureaucrats in Brussels, Belgium, were voting to ban British beef, the Colegraves were sitting in the warm kitchen of their Cotswold farmhouse and tallying losses.

They say their family has farmed these lands for about 500 years, and they expect the tradition to continue for a few more generations. But this is clearly going to be a difficult spring.

John Colegrave says the family's 130 steers were worth more than $150,000 before the scare.

"I don't even think I could sell them now," he says.

Like many other farmers, the Colegraves are calling on the British government to institute a slaughter policy to rid the herd of the disease. But so far, government ministers are rejecting the policy -- a policy that would cost the government dearly in compensation to the cattle farmers.

"Now, the politicians are going to do nothing because it will cost too much," John Colegrave says. "There has to be an eradication. The lesson in all of this has to be that you don't mess with nature."

Banbury has been crippled by the scare. The town's cattle market, said to be the largest in Europe, will likely be empty this week. Local slaughterhouses have either shut down or cut back.

There is fear in the fields.

"We're all asking, 'Have we got jobs?' " says Paul Stead, the herd manager at a nearby dairy farm that has recorded six cases of mad cow disease in the past four years.

Mr. Stead is among those preparing, at least mentally, for a mass slaughter.

"The second job I ever had, I was at a dispersal sale at a fair and an old farmer who had worked with these cows all his life, he stood in the middle of his yard and he cried and cried," Mr. Stead says. "If we have to kill these cows, it will be like that everywhere."

But farmers like Harry Colegrave, raised before the tractor era, are hoping to ride out the controversy. He remembers another tense time in the mid-1960s, when he slaughtered 100 cattle infected with foot-and-mouth disease.

"We had to burn them," he says. "The fires lasted for weeks."

In this crisis, though, people are fearful of the uncertainty. The incubation period for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can last years.

The Colegraves say their steers never had "mad cow disease," believed to have been introduced through infected sheep remains fed to cattle. The Colegraves are furious with the feed companies, and angered with a government that let the disease spin out of control in the past decade.

"I guess hindsight is marvelous," John Colegrave says. "You can't sweep things under the carpet. It would have taken a brave government to turn around and say, 'We've got a disease and we'll spend billions and take out every cow. You would have been accused of overreaction. You put pictures of bonfires in the newspapers and that would make things worse. But it should have been done."

Now, the Colegraves can only wait and hope that the crisis blows over like a summer storm. But after five days of crisis, there are no signs that the story is going away. John's wife, Julia Colegrave, says the panic has taken a toll on the farm families who toil to feed a nation, not poison one.

"I'm upset that some of these animals may be sacrificed because we've abused the rules of animals," she says.

Mrs. Colegrave continues to eat beef but is concerned about what she feeds her 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Last Sunday, the Colegraves skipped the traditional meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

They ate lamb.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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