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Jumping Frogs
Nathan Davies

"Anyway, there's absolutely no proof to this malicious rumour that I started running mad cow disease stories simply because Sir Angus Black, the great British beef baron, lost ten thousand pounds to me in a game of poker and refused to pay up. Moreover, there's even less truth in the rumour that I took a hundred million Francs from the French to keep the stories running for another year."

Elliott Carver, Media Mogul.
(007 - Tomorrow Never Dies)
© United Artists.

Despite being several years old now this Bond villain's favourite party piece could quite easily slip into any conversation on the coverage of continued European agricultural disaster as it stands today. The issues that surround bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) still persist as readily as the disease itself, and have only been made worse by the recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in the UK. Take for example the present situation in Germany; still struggling through the process of destroying over 400,000 cows to help resurrect faith in the beef industry after the effects of the BSE crisis, they have been warned that they may have imported animals infected with Foot and Mouth from one of the affected farms in Devon. The Netherlands also received the same warning, as did France; once again placing the French in the thick of things, or 'the front line' as they are now calling it.

Across the channel in the UK this sounds like typical French exaggeration, or worse, the beginnings of new accusations about exporting diseases and poor agricultural standards, and to a certain extent, this is true. The French are calling Foot and Mouth the new “fievre anglais” and are claiming that the amazing spread of the disease throughout the country can only have been due to a weakening of the animals’ resistance to infection, caused by over intensive farming methods. However, in the same breath, they are praising the expedient and appropriately severe British response to the outbreak. This is perhaps because, this time, Britain is not directly responsible for the epidemic, as it is suspected that it was accidentally brought to the country and somehow got into a batch of animal feed. It may also have something to do with the fact that France can still vaguely remember the last major outbreak of Foot and Mouth in Europe, some 20 years ago, because it happened over there, and they are anxious not to get it back. In fact that seems to be their greatest worry, and all hype, hysteria and finger pointing aside, the French do genuinely have something to worry about.

Since the relative collapse of the beef industry throughout Europe as a result of the recent BSE crisis, French consumers and suppliers alike have been turning to alternative meats. Not only have suppliers of French butchers, supermarkets and restaurants been importing sheep and pigs in their tens of thousands every month, but they have also been buying up large quantities of horse flesh as a substitute for beef. Many of these animals, the horses and moorland ponies in particular, have come directly from the UK, while others (mostly the sheep) have come via a second country through re-selling, making them potentially more difficult to track and identify. While it is not known as yet whether any of these animals are carrying Foot and Mouth, all of them are potential victims simply because of their species, and the sheep in particular are thought to come from an affected area.

As a precautionary measure, Jean Glavany, the French minister for agriculture, recently ordered the destruction of all sheep whose origin could not be accounted for, as well as those animals that had come into contact with them. By the end of February the total had exceeded 47,000 (approximately one months quota) with a further 30,000 French sheep under close observation. With the epidemic in Britain thought to have leapt up from nowhere in the space of a few weeks, if not days, it is now possible that France has cleansed its shores once more, but the government is not taking any chances. Even the suspicion of Foot and Mouth is enough to warrant official inspection. However, disposal of the affected carcasses could be a real problem should more diseased animals arrive, as the country (like Germany, and many others in Europe hit by the BSE scare) is still struggling to destroy its rolling quota of cows older than 30 months.

The only thing that could help alleviate this particular situation is the one thing that not only France, but also Britain and the other countries of the EU, will not do. These animals, the sheep, pigs and horses can actually be treated for Foot and Mouth disease and those that do not yet have it can be vaccinated against it. However, it is not an economical option because, should the animal survive the disease, it’s value will have dropped substantially, thus leaving the farmer lighter in the pocket than if they were compensated for the destruction of healthy animals. In France they are already facing disputes with representatives of the stricken beef industry over the amount of compensation awarded for their loss of business (a 50% decline in trade over the last year alone); to go through the same again with dealers in pork, lamb and horse flesh could bring the country to a literal halt. Even more important than the financial aspect, however, is the issue of the consumers’ faith in the product. Although there is only an extremely remote chance that meat from an animal with Foot and Mouth will cause (curable) symptoms in a human being, people will lose confidence in that type because of association. It won’t matter that the animal has been cured and that is why these cullings, on top of those required in the wake of BSE are going ahead.

Should Foot and Mouth disease take hold in France, sympathy with Britain will fold, inevitably leading to the island being blamed. Although it is not directly responsible for the export of contaminated animals, the French will argue that the legacy of mad cow disease, for which they do hold the UK morally and criminally responsible (in exporting bonemeal animal feed certified as unfit for domestic use and suspected of containing BSE, between 1988 and 1990), left them reliant on livestock susceptible to the new epidemic at a time when little more could be done prevent the risk of further contagion. If it comes to that, then the likes of Elliott Carver will once again profit from France’s anger at Britain’s misfortunes.

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