Mad Cows and European unity Draconian measures: Incineration is for orderly markets, not public health.

April 04, 1996

THIRTY SCIENTISTS convened in Geneva by the World Health Organization concluded yesterday that no link is proven between British cattle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and ten young people who contracted a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD). The experts are confident there is no risk from milk.

Simultaneously, yesterday, the agriculture ministers of 15 member countries of the European Union meeting in Brussels condemned 4.7 million British cattle to death over the next six years. The EU will compensate British farmers 70 percent of the value of the animals, the British treasury the remainder. Britain will guarantee those cattle never enter the food chain.

Britain has perhaps one-third the incinerating capacity required, and until April 30 to produce a plan. The ban on export of British beef products remains in effect at least six more weeks. The EU will stockpile 50,000 tons of beef to maintain prices until demand returns.

These measures have little to do with public health. They are about consumer confidence, stability of markets and the integrity of the European single market. While scientists need more time to know, consumers and voters demand action. Two shiploads of Irish live cattle and frozen beef that Egypt kept out of national waters yesterday highlighted the urgency.

The action shows the extent that sovereignty is supplanted by EU institutions. How much more "European" to go is the most emotional issue dividing Britain before its election next year. Yesterday, Prime Minister John Major promised a referendum to ratify or veto any decision to join the single European currency. Referendums have no role in British practice, but this papers over a cabinet split.

How the British public feels about Europe a year hence will depend on its assessment of Brussels' performance in the mad cow crisis. If EU decisions are seen as panic-driven, scientifically baseless and punitive to British farmers, there will be a backlash against Europe. If the EU is seen as having been decisive and responsible for the swift revival of confidence in British beef and markets, the idea of Europe will gain.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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