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'Mad Cow' Fear Cuts Into French Favorite

Ban on T-bone steaks is one of the measures taken by the government to safeguard the public from deadly disease linked to tainted livestock.


PARIS — With panic rising in France about the likely link between tainted beef and a brain-crippling fatal disease, the government has imposed a series of emergency measures--even banning T-bone steaks.

Pushed into acting by what many observers have termed a mass consumer psychosis, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin also ordered a moratorium on the use of animal-based feed for all livestock.

The steps, which went into effect Wednesday, were meant to safeguard the meat that is sold in butcher shops and supermarkets from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, also known as "mad cow" disease.

This ailment, fatal to livestock, is believed to be connected to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a malady in humans.

Like many of their neighbors in Western Europe, the French are now more worried than ever about what is on their plates. Their suspicions mushroomed last month when it became known that a cow infected with BSE had been discovered at a Normandy slaughterhouse and that 8 tons of beef from the same herd had been sold to a large supermarket chain.

Four new cases of mad cow disease among cattle were reported in France this week, bringing the total this year to 100. As panic spread about the potential dangers of eating red meat, many school cafeterias pulled beef from the menu.

At the wholesale market in Rungis that serves as the "belly of Paris," beef sales collapsed by as much as 60%. According to a report in the newspaper Le Parisien, sales at McDonald's restaurants plummeted by 30% to 40%.

Only two deaths from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have been reported in France, compared with about 80 in Britain, where a BSE epizootic--an epidemic among animals--erupted in the mid-1990s. But French Secretary of State for Health Dominique Gillot contributed to the panic by saying that dozens of new cases of debilitating and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease were likely in this country.

Jospin, a Socialist, was goaded into action after his rival on the right, President Jacques Chirac, called for a total ban on animal feed enriched with offal, fat, bone marrow and other slaughterhouse waste. Chirac, who is likely to run for a second term against Jospin in 2002, also demanded systematic BSE testing before livestock is slaughtered.

Chirac's televised remarks this month, in effect, turned the mad cow issue into a contest between the leaders to show who had taken the welfare of the public more to heart. Originally reluctant to act before data were in from an ongoing scientific study, Jospin on Tuesday announced a seven-point plan to break the apparent link in the food chain between BSE in cows and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans.

A total of 957,000 tons of animal-based feed and bone meal will have to be stored or destroyed each year, Jospin told reporters. Some of France's military bases will be used for the warehousing, he said.

Such feed, suspected of spreading BSE from sick to healthy animals, already was illegal for cattle but had been kept on sale for pigs, poultry, fish and pets. A decision on whether to outlaw such feed permanently will be made once the report is in from the French government agency for food safety, something that could take three to four more months.

BSE testing of cattle will increase. As for French beefeaters, they should notice little change--except if their preferred cut is the T-bone, an American classic adopted in France. As of Wednesday, that type of steak became illegal here because of concerns that the hunk of backbone that gives the cut its name could contain marrow contaminated with BSE.

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