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BSE reaches Italy and Austria

Special report: the BSE crisis

Rory Carroll in Rome Monday January 15, 2001

Italy revealed its first suspected case of BSE at the weekend, ending the hope that it had escaped the crisis sweeping Europe.

A milk cow from a breeding farm near the northern town of Brescia, in Lombardy, tested positive after being slaughtered on Thursday.

The agriculture minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, said: "We are a country that imports many animals, so we cannot exclude finding cases of BSE."

The health minister, Umberto Veronesi, told a press conference on Saturday: "We are not 100% sure, and even if it was the case, it would be the first time an Italian-born cow had contracted the disease."

A Turin laboratory is due to confirm tomorrow whether tissue samples contain the brain-wasting disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

The cow is believed to have come from a herd of 180 owned by the Grecia family on the Malpensata di Pontevico farm. The police sealed off the area yesterday.

An investigating magistrate was quoted as saying that the cow was born and bred on the farm, but Mr Pecoraro Scanio said it appeared to have been imported.

The only previous cases in Italy were two infected cows imported from Britain, but last month Italy followed its EU partners in ordering tests on all cattle going for slaughter. In November it ordered tests on all beef cattle over two years old, and labels showing where they had been reared and slaughtered.

"The suspected case was discovered because the controls are efficient," a government spokesman said.

Italian confidence in beef is plunging, however. Even before Saturday's announcement sales had fallen 40% in reaction to French cases. School canteens have stopped serving red meat.

A ban on French imports, also imposed in November, was lifted on Friday, because the Italian tests were considered adequate. Around 600 random tests in northern Italy, where most of the country's dairy farms are found, were negative.

Consumer groups say Italy is lagging in its safety measures. The newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that EU inspectors had concluded that controls at slaughterhouses were often inadequate and sometimes non-existent, suggesting that contaminated material may have found its way into Italian meat products and by-products.

Italy slaughters about 4.5m cattle a year and imports about 1.5m, mostly from France, the research institute Ismea says.

Austria too reported its first probable case of BSE yesterday, after tests on an animal slaughtered in Germany but born and raised in the Austrian province of Tyrol.

-- Rachel Gibson (, January 14, 2001


Nando Times

European McDonald's supplier discovers possible mad cow case

By ALESSANDRA RIZZO, Associated Press

ROME (January 15, 2001 1:41 p.m. EST - Scientists have found Italy's first suspected case of mad cow disease at a slaughterhouse that supplies meat to McDonald's restaurants around Europe.

The slaughterhouse in Lodi, in Italy's northern Lombardy region, belongs to the Cremonini group. Cremonini is the exclusive meat supplier for the American fast food giant's restaurants across Italy, company spokesman Massimiliano Parboni said Monday.

Parboni couldn't immediately say which other countries besides Italy get beef from the company.

Until Saturday, when the case was discovered, Italy had been considered mad-cow free. The only two cases reported there were two cows in 1994 which had been imported from Britain.

"We expected it. Italy could not be the exception," scientist Maria Caramelli told Canale 5 private TV on Monday.

Caramelli works with a team of scientists testing brain tissue from the cow. Final tests, to be released Tuesday, were expected to confirm the earlier results.

McDonald's, which has 295 restaurants here serving 600,000 customers daily, recently put up signs in eateries across Italy to reassure consumers about the origin of its beef. It stood by its Italian supplier Monday, saying the "quality, traceability and safety" of its beef protect consumers.

"We have full trust in Cremonini, which has the country's highest quality procedures," said Alessandra di Montezemolo, European spokeswoman for the U.S. food giant.

Mad cow - the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE - is a brain-wasting ailment that scientists believe was spread by recycling meat and bone meal from infected animals back into cattle feed. BSE wasn't identified until 1986, but by the mid-1990s, Britain was seeing tens of thousands of cases a year of infected cattle stumbling about as if drunk.

Then, in 1996, a link was established between BSE and a new and similar human illness called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a horrible crippling of the nervous system followed by death. So far more than 80 people have died, mostly in Britain.

The public health uproar abated after the European Union banned exports of British beef and feed in 1996 and millions of British cows were incinerated. But recently, new tests started turning up dozens of BSE cases in continental cows that apparently ate contaminated feed before the ban.

In the Italian case, the 6-year-old milking cow came from a breeding farm near Brescia, which has what Parboni described as "occasional contacts" with Cremonini. The 190 other cows on the Brescia farm have been banned from being slaughtered while the case is investigated.

Elsewhere Monday, cattle breeders throughout Spain began an indefinite blockade of slaughterhouses - a move that could leave the country without meat stocks within days.

The blockade is intended to pressure the government to help alleviate the mad cow crisis. It was called by the country's three main breeder associations and backed by two farming unions, said Javier Lopez, president of one of the breeder associations.

"We're doing this out of despair," Lopez said.

Breeders estimate the mad cow crisis has reduced meat consumption by 70 percent in Spain and caused financial losses of $65 million. They accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the crisis and demand compensation for their losses.

-- Rachel Gibson (, January 15, 2001.

JANUARY 16, 15:54 EST

Testing Reveals Mad Cow Spread

By PAUL AMES Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) The European Union appealed to consumers Tuesday not to panic even as food inspectors turned up evidence that the deadly mad cow disease may be more widespread across the continent than previously believed.

In the past few days, suspected cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy have been uncovered from Bavaria to Belgium and in an Italian slaughterhouse that supplies beef for McDonald's hamburgers.

The EU's head office is pleading for calm, saying the discovery of new cases is a natural result of the expanded testing program it ordered the 15 EU nations to launch Jan. 1.

``The results should be no surprise for us,'' said Beate Gminder, spokeswoman for the European Commission. ``Everybody has to be vigilant in protecting the consumer (but) there is no reason to create fear among people.''

However, Europe's public health authorities appear trapped in a vicious circle: expanded testing designed to allay consumer anguish has turned up alarming evidence that the ailment has spread to areas considered immune.

Italy had been clear since two infected cows imported from Britain were found in 1994. Five confirmed cases have been found in Spain since October; Belgium reported two new cases Monday, bringing the national total to 21. Germany was shocked by a first case in November; since then, tests have uncovered more than a dozen infected animals.

However, tests did provide some reassurance a cow born in Austria and suspected of having mad cow did not have the disease.

And McDonald's reported there had been no impact on its sales in Italy. Alessandra di Montezemolo, a company spokeswoman, said the suspect animal ``never made it to the meat processing stage,'' noting the slaughterhouse supplies many customers besides McDonald's.

EU officials stress that the ``second mad cow crisis,'' which began in France in October, is far from the epidemic that swept British herds in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Britain ``has seen a total of 180,000 cases, while in (the rest of) Europe we have seen around 1,300,'' Gminder said.

Nevertheless, many Europeans fear contracting the human form of mad cow disease variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease from eating infected meat. In three months, beef sales have tumbled by 27 percent across the EU.

In Germany, the almost daily discovery of new cases of mad cow disease has provoked intense consumer angst. Bans of sausages and other controls have failed to stem a collapse of the beef market sales are down by a third.

Criticism over government handling of the scare forced the resignation of the health and agriculture ministers last week and a political squabble continues over proposals to slaughter up to 400,000 head of cattle.

In Spain, where two suspected cases of mad cow disease were found Tuesday, the crisis has also taken a political turn: opposition Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called for the resignation of the health and agriculture ministers.

Spanish cattle breeders blockaded slaughterhouses for a second day Tuesday to demand the government help them through the crisis.

Under the EU testing program, all slaughtered cattle over 30 months old must be tested for mad cow disease or be destroyed. The EU has offered to pay farmers 70 percent of the market price for any carcasses offered for destruction, and individual governments can make up the shortfall and cover the costs of disposing of the bodies.

Alternatively farmers can have the animal tested and, if cleared, put the meat on the market.

Farmers representatives insist the tests mean meat is safe.

``It's not risky. Any beef that reaches the consumer today is healthy,'' said Costas Golfidis, livestock director at the European farmers' organization COPA.

-- Martin Thompson (, January 16, 2001.

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