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Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
April 3, 1996, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column 1; Foreign Desk
LENGTH: 846 words
HEADLINE: Britain's Daunting Prospect: Killing 15,000 Cows a Week
BYLINE: By SARAH LYALL
DATELINE: LONDON, April 2
In the last two weeks, the British mad cow scare has humiliated the Government,
agonized the $6.5 billon beef industry and turned carnivores into vegetarians.
The latest twist, in the form of a proposed remedy, is a logistical nightmare:
how to kill at least 15,000 "older" cows a week for five or six years and destroy
Britain's proposal would kill about 4.7 million cows. [Early on Wednesday, European
Union leaders meeting in Luxembourg approved the plan, agreeing to meet 70 percent
of the cost of compensating British farmers, but refused to lift a global ban
on the export of British meat products, The Associated Press reported. Page
But British Government officials admit that they do not know how they will go about
putting to death and then incinerating such a vast number of cows or what it will
Britain has "no more than half a dozen" incinerators that are now used to destroy
about 1,000 dead cows a week, plus brains, spines and other offal that farmers
are not allowed to use for meat, said Phil Saunders, a spokesman for the Beef and
Livestock Commission, which advises the cattle industry.
officials said they did not know how they could incinerate so many cows or whether
Britain would be forced to put some slaughtered meat into cold storage until incinerator space
"What we have is nowhere near sufficient to deal with this large number," said
a spokesman for the British Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, who insisted
that his name not be used. "These are all proposals that are being looked at."
One possible option, Mr. Saunders said, is that some of the animals might be slaughtered
in licensed landfill sites set up for the purpose, as they were during an outbreak
of bovine foot-and-mouth disease in the 1960's. "Farmers might be able, for instance, to dig a pit and use lime to disinfect and destroy the carcasses,"
The other problem, of course, is the staggering costs of the proposals. Experts
say that the slaughter and incineration plan would cost billions of dollars,
depending on how many incinerators need to be built and the formula used to compensate farmers.
The most recent mad cow crisis began two weeks ago when the Government announced
that 10 unexplained cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain illness in
humans, might have been linked to eating meat from infected cows.
Under the British
proposal, all cows that are now 30 months old or older -- mostly dairy cows, since
beef cows are generally slaughtered after 18 to 24 months -- would be killed, and their carcasses destroyed, after they reached the end of their working lives
of seven or eight years. That would prevent their meat, which is normally used
in meat pies, soups and other lower-grade meat products, from being used as
"Under the proposals, if you have a dairy cow that's 31 months old at the moment,
you would carry on milking it, and when it comes to the natural end of its working
life it would be slaughtered and then incinerated," said a spokeswoman
for the National Farmers' Union, who also insisted on anonimity. The Union has approved
the British proposal.
Government officials say there is no scientific evidence that mad cow disease can
be transmitted through milk or other dairy products. In fact, they say, one sign
that a dairy cow has been infected by the disease is that it can no longer produce
The reason for the 30-month cut-off, farmers and government officials say, is that
mad cow disease has almost exclusively affected cows who are at least 30 months
old and who were born before 1993, when the Government began more strictly
enforcing its cattle-feed regulations.
"No animal born after the beginning of 1993 has ever shown symptoms of the disease,"
Mr. Saunders said. "The culling is a double insurance."
In 1988, Britain banned farmers from feeding animal proteins to cattle, saying
that mad cow disease might have been introduced into the cattle population
when cows were fed offal from sheep infected with scrapie, a brain disease similar to mad cow disease. But the regulations were not strictly enforced until
1991 and 1992, officials said.
The stringent enforcement has paid off, said the Ministry of Agriculture spokesman.
Cows born in 1989 showed 10,403 cases of mad cow disease, he said, but the figure
fell to 3,140 for cows born in 1990; 956 for cows born in 1991; 48 for cows born in 1992; and 1 for cows born in 1993.
In all, about 160,000 cases have been reported in Britain, Mr. Saunders said. About
250 new cases are discovered each week in cows born before 1993, down from a high
of 1,000 new cases a week in 1992.
Half the herds in Britain have had at least one case of mad cow disease, known
clinically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but officials said they had no
figures on how many herds had had multiple cases.
Mr. Saunders said that in his opinion there was nothing to fear from British beef.
"This crisis is 100 percent about consumer confidence," he said.