Fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease, are spreading across Europe. New incidents of the disease have been identified in herds across the continent. Several suspected cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant of BSE, have been reported as well. European governments must act quickly to restore faith in their food safety programs. They fight an unpredictable disease and their own sad histories in this field.

BSE first claimed international attention in the 1990s, when an epizootic — the animal equivalent of an epidemic — was reported in Britain. It is believed that BSE is transmitted when the meat of an infected animal is used for animal feed, a common practice around the world. The disease jumped species — despite assurances that that was impossible. More than 80 deaths in Britain have been attributed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In response to fears of BSE, the European Union in 1996 imposed a ban on British beef. After the country culled its herds, the European Commission, over French and German opposition, lifted the ban. A testing and certification system was put in place, and the crisis was thought to have been averted.

Then last month, news that meat from an infected herd of cattle had been sold in French supermarkets refocused the fears of European consumers. Reports of over 110 cases of BSE in France this year, nearly four times the number in 1999, escalated concern. Thus far, France has only reported only two deaths from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Official reaction has been swift. The French government imposed a series of emergency measures to break the link in the food chain between BSE in cows and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in human beings. They include a moratorium on the use of animal-based feed for all livestock, a ban on the eating of T-bone steaks (the backbone that gives the cut its name could contain marrow contaminated with BSE), research into feed alternatives and financial aid to farmers. Further measures await the results of an official study.

France’s trading partners moved just as quickly. Italy, Spain, Russia, Poland and Hungary have all banned the import of French beef. The German government announced last week that it wants to ban the use of meat and bone meal in all animal feed. The use of meal in cattle feed was banned in 1994, but the Berlin government now wants to extend the ban to other animal feeds. The new urgency was triggered by reports that Germany has possibly detected its first cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a new form of the disease in humans. Since mandatory reporting of the original Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was introduced in Germany in 1994, 369 cases had been diagnosed through the end of 1999. And last week, Spain announced its first two likely cases of mad cow disease.

The European Union has also taken action. EU agriculture ministers last week agreed in principle on a massive upgrade of testing, with mandatory tests of all older cattle. France said it would not export T-bone steaks or animal-based feeds to other European nations. The European Parliament has called for a ban on animal meal-based feed for all farm animals.

Governments are in a difficult position. Evidence of a link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is suggestive, but a conclusive link has not been established. Still, the risks are high and dangers of being wrong are frightening. The effects of BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are terrifying to see.

The pressure on governments to act has been intensified by their record in public health matters. The British government first denied that BSE was a problem and waged a PR campaign to allay public fears. A recent report by a British commission charged successive governments with misleading the public and failing to respond to real health concerns.

Paris is proving only a little more adroit. It too began with an ad campaign to reassure consumers about the safety of French beef. Then, as public concern mounted, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac seemed to battle for credit for protecting public welfare. Both men know that the French government has a credibility problem after the scandal over the sale of tainted blood products a few years ago.

The pressure to take action will mount as the number of Creutzfeldt-Jakob increases, and increase they must since there has been a substantial incubation period and it is very unlikely that the bans have been leakproof. Rigorous testing and certification systems must be put in place. If entire herds must be culled, then governments should not hesitate — but they must also provide the funds to compensate farmers that will be hard hit by such measures. Governments walk a fine line between responding to public fears and encouraging them.

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