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World Perspective | Europe

Feline Puts Farmers in the Catbird Seat

Bits fell ill from bad food and led Sweden to ban certain additives. She gets credit for saving country from 'mad cow.'

March 16, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STOCKHOLM — Anyone who has ever lived with a cat can imagine how few felines ever make it into the ranks of heroes and martyrs.

But Bits, the late companion of journalist Erik Fichtelius, is now celebrated across the Swedish countryside for saving this nation from the evils of industrialized farming and the livestock diseases wreaking havoc elsewhere in Europe.

Bits, named for her affinity for computers--or perhaps the attention Fichtelius paid them--died more than a decade ago after falling ill in 1985 from pet food that contained pulverized meat and bone from lame livestock.

"The feed industry at that time considered that protein was protein, and there was little concern about the source," says Lars Hook, a former journalist himself who is now spokesman for the Federation of Swedish Farmers.

When Bits' reaction to the canned food became so severe that she licked away all the fur from her tail and hindquarters, Fichtelius took her and the cat food to the University of Uppsala veterinary science department for analysis.

Researchers discovered that the meat and bone meal additives to the pet food included filler from diseased livestock and even ground-up cat and dog carcasses from animal shelters. Scientists now believe that similarly contaminated animal feed is to blame for the spread of "mad cow" disease in Europe.

As head of the consumer affairs section on influential Swedish Radio, Fichtelius prepared an hourlong documentary on the feed industry practices. The report so horrified pet owners that the government imposed an immediate ban on animal additives in pet food, recalls Fichtelius, now a TV journalist.

"It was a real alarm for us, as industrialized farming was becoming quite common then and no one questioned the damage it could do to public trust in agriculture," says Hook.

The pet food scandal led to research into other animal feeds, resulting in a 1986 government ban on meat and bone meal in cattle fodder and, soon after that, a prohibition against antibiotics, which can be dangerous to humans because they foster antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The European Union's big agricultural powers were still using animal protein and antibiotics in feed late last year.

Sweden adopted the toughest animal welfare laws in the world in the late 1980s, mandating adequate space and straw bedding for penned livestock, outlawing tethers for poultry and limiting the amount of automation in animal care and feeding.

The result has been not only an environmentally and politically correct agricultural sector but also Europe's most extensive organic farming network--as well as disease-free livestock, at least so far.

Agriculture Minister Margareta Winberg is taking advantage of Sweden's current European Union presidency to urge other farming countries to go green. She has hailed the appointment of Greens politician Renate Kuenast as German minister for agriculture. Kuenast is urging the embrace of back-to-basic practices long common in Sweden.

That not a single case of mad cow disease has afflicted Sweden's 80,000 farms hardly seems a coincidence, Winberg notes in arguing for reform of the EU's nearly $40-billion Common Agricultural Policy, which tends to reward farmers for mass production.

Having abandoned factory farming far earlier than other EU nations, Sweden's food producers are now enjoying growing demand for their meat while consumption and prices have plummeted elsewhere. Sales of Swedish beef are up 3% this year, notes Hook, while demand has dropped as much as 80% in countries such as Germany and Britain.

Fichtelius recalls with more than a modicum of satisfaction that Swedish farmers accused him 15 years ago of trying to drive them into bankruptcy with his crusade against the suspect proteins. The country's ban on animal feed additives was also a divisive issue during Sweden's negotiations for EU membership, which it gained in 1995.

"But the head of the farmers federation publicly thanked me last week for keeping up the pressure that made the government uphold the safety measures for political reasons, because now everyone is happy that it did," Fichtelius says.

As for Bits, she is now celebrated as the sacrificial hero who saved a national industry, says the journalist, lamenting only that in her lifetime, "she never really got her claim to fame."

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