MAD COW disease had jumped species to humans
Monday, February 26 11:33 PM SGT
Farm ministers meet on mad cow as police repel demonstrating farmers
BRUSSELS, Feb 26, 2001 (AFP) -
EU farm ministers were discreetly ushered into EU headquarters for a meeting on mad cow measures here Monday as Belgian riot police repelled infuriated farmers threatened with financial ruin by the disease.
The 15 ministers, concerned with mad cow as well as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain last week, began their late afternoon meeting after a morning that saw police fire water cannon against demonstrating farmers' rocks, snowballs and firecrackers.
By the ministers' arrival, the boisterous farmers had been pushed back and contained at the entrance to a city park, and the area around the council headquarters was left a colorful melange of royal blue armored police vans and television satellite trucks.
The farmers continued to demonstrate, but no closer than 500 meters (yards) from the meeting venue, cordoned off by barricades of steel and barbed wire and tire-ripping spikes.
Some farmers wore T-shirts proclaiming: "We're going to get slaughtered."
Others warmed themselves in the freezing cold with a wood and tire fire as EU bureaucrats peered down amused from their high-rise office windows.
The farmers shot off firecrackers, voiced their gripes over loudspeakers and handed out free barbecued steak sandwiches to show beef is still safe to eat.
But safe or not, mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has wreaked havoc with the European beef markets. Consumption and prices are down as much as 40 percent in some EU countries since the disease was discovered in Britain in the 1990s.
The farm ministers were looking at new measures to contain the spread of BSE, rebuild the battered EU beef market and bail out farmers on the verge of financial ruin.
A key topic on their agenda was EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler's seven-point market rescue plan.
The meeting followed a week in which Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain and non-aligned Switzerland reported fresh cases of BSE.
The farm ministers were also debating a report from the EU's Standing Veterinary Committee on the risk that another transmissible spongiform encephalopathy -- of which BSE is only one -- could hit sheep and goats in the form of a disease called scrapie.
And, in an "other business" item tacked on at the last minute, they were getting a report from British colleague Nick Brown on last week's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in British pigs and cattle.
Britain -- haunted by its BSE crisis in the 1990s -- moved swiftly, cutting off exports of all live animals, meat and dairy products to the world at large as it rushed to deal with its first foot-and-mouth outbreak in 20 years.
The European Commission simultaneously ordered a similar, temporary ban on British exports to the 14 other EU nations.
And a growing list of countries outside the EU has been announcing their own bans on British animals and meat.
The EU ban runs only through Thursday, intended to buy time for the veterinary committee to come up with risk assessments and recommendations.
But a commission spokeswoman warned it could last a lot longer. "It depends on the facts," she said, "on the extent and spread of the disease in the UK. We'll see over the next week."
Foot-and-mouth disease is considered largely harmless to humans, and generally non-fatal to livestock, but as a highly contagious virus it can spell financial ruin to farmers whose animals fall sick.
An official of the UN-affiliated European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease told AFP that "human health is not in danger" from the outbreak.
And the commission spokeswoman also insisted the disease "as such is not transmittable to humans."
Despite those assurances, observers recalled that in the mid-1990s, the British government was telling the public the same thing about BSE, until medical evidence showed the disease had jumped species to humans, killing them in the form of the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD).
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