European Union bans import of British beef London attempts to counter fallout from 'mad cow' scare

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

LONDON -- Banned by the European Union and banished by Burger King, British beef suffered another beating yesterday in the wake of the "mad cow disease" crisis.

While the British government continued to insist that no other steps were needed to contain the disease, others joined the growing worldwide movement to just say no to British beef.

European Union veterinary officials, in a 14-1 vote with Britain standing alone, imposed an immediate and indefinite ban on British beef imports. Nearly all the member states had instituted bans, anyway, and the move doesn't affect Britain's domestic beef trade.

An angered British Prime Minister John Major won a small concession when he persuaded European Commission chief Jacques Santer to reconvene the committee today. The British government plans to send experts to vouch for British beef's safety.

The United States does not import British beef.

'Totally unjustified'

British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell denounced the EU plan as "outrageous and totally unjustified."

"There is a right answer and a wrong answer, and the Europeans have adopted the wrong answer," he told the British Press Association.

Franz Fischler, the EU agriculture commissioner, said: "We want to contain the problem in the UK and raise confidence in beef in other member states."

Meanwhile, Burger King followed the lead of fast-food rivals McDonald's, Wendy's and Wimpy, plus a few thousand schools, in taking British beef off the menu. Shoppers also appeared to be staying away from the product, as the country's $6 billion beef industry was grinding to a halt.

The crisis was triggered last week when the government acknowledged that 10 young people had a strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and that the fatal brain ailment might be linked with a cattle illness known as "mad cow disease."

161,663 confirmed cases

Since 1986, there have been 161,663 confirmed cases of the disease in British cattle, some 422 times more cases than the rest of the world combined. The disease is thought to have been transferred through feeding the remains of infected sheep to cattle, a practice that was stopped in 1989.

Yesterday, Mr. Dorrell reported to the House of Commons that a scientific advisory panel claimed children were no more likely to contract the human form of the "mad cow disease" than adults.

He said the panel reported that the risk from eating beef or beef products was likely to be extremely small.

The government added that there is no reason to slaughter the country's herd of 11 million to 13 million cattle to contain the disease. The statement contradicted news reports that Britain was planning a selective slaughter of at least 4 million cattle. Slaughtering the entire herd would cost more than $15 billion.

Venomous debate

The announcements triggered a venomous debate, with Labor health spokeswoman Harriet Harman charging government ministers with a "reckless disregard for public health." The debate reached a nadir when Conservative politician Tony Marlow called Mrs. Harman a "stupid cow."

The mad cow scare has excited passions and frightened consumers, and shows no signs of abating. The scare has dragged down the British pound and stocks, while the price of imported beef in Britain has soared 25 percent.

Britain's leading consumer group maintained that the only way to avoid the risk of "mad cow disease" was to stop eating British beef.

And apparently, that's what British consumers are doing, as the beef industry faces collapse.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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