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January 29, 2001

European Farm Ministers to Meet as Mad Cow Crisis Spreads


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BRUSSELS - European Union farm ministers are set to meet this week amid calls for tougher measures to combat the mad cow disease crisis gripping the continent and starting to ripple around the world.

Governments, struggling to cope with plunging consumer confidence in beef, will debate on Monday whether they should extend compulsory testing of cattle for the brain-wasting disorder to younger animals and ban potentially dangerous meat cuts such as T-bone steak.

EU officials said the discussions follow the latest advice from the EU's top scientists, who recommended a ban on mechanically recovered meat, tough treatment of animal fats and the removal of spinal columns from the food chain in some cases.

Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder said on Friday the EU executive would also report on how member states had coped with the compulsory testing of older cattle for mad cow disease if destined for the food chain and the disposal of meat-based animal feed, banned for six months.

``But there would be no specific proposals,'' she added.

EU diplomats said some countries, notably Germany and Austria, may press for the feed ban to be extended, perhaps indefinitely.

But EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler said this week a permanent ban on such feed would only make economic sense if it also applied to imported meat. This could raise international trade problems if the ban was not properly justified by science, he said.


Germany, which has detected 20 cases of the disease since November, announced on Friday it would unilaterally drop the age limit on cattle that have to be tested from 30 to 24 months.

EU officials said it was still unclear whether that would be adopted on an EU-wide basis.

``We have to reflect over the next weeks whether or not 30 months is an appropriate age for tests,'' Gminder said.

Ministers are due to discuss mad cow disease, also known as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), over lunch on Monday, before moving on to other topics at the one-day meeting.

But EU diplomats noted there was a lot of ground to cover for purely a lunch discussion.

French Farm Minister Jean Glavany wrote to Fischler this week, saying the crisis was of an unprecedented magnitude and was certain to last.

He asked for a range of fresh measures, including a prolongation of the six-month ``purchase for destruction'' scheme, which gives farmers the option of having their older cattle destroyed if no BSE tests are available.

The voluntary scheme, 70 percent funded from EU coffers, offers farmers a near market price.

Glavany reaffirmed his request for more EU direct aid for farmers hit by the crisis and for extra payments to boost the growing of protein-rich crops to relace meat-based animal feed. Earlier on Friday the U.N. world food body urged countries around the world to act to reduce the risk of BSE.

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