EU farm ministers OK cattle testing

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - European Union farm ministers decided Tuesday to begin testing cattle more than 30 months old for mad cow disease, a major increase in testing that attempts to counter growing concerns about the disease.

Cattle over that age judged to be at higher risk from the brain-wasting ailment will be tested as of Jan. 1. The testing program will be expanded to all cattle categories over 30 months old as of July 1.

The order will require about 230,000 new tests in the initial phase of the risk groups. Farm groups fear millions of tests will be necessary in the second phase.

"The principle to also test healthy animals has been welcomed" by the farm ministers' meeting, said Beate Gminder, spokeswoman for EU Health Commissioner David Byrne, stressing the controls will extend to countries where no cases of mad cow have been discovered.

"It will give the consumers the assurance that their beef is being tested," Gminder said.

Mad cow disease has been linked to the fatal human brain ailment Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and consumers have shied away from beef as a result.

The ministers also agreed that scientists will assess bans on French beef imports by Spain, Italy and Austria and offer an opinion within two weeks on their validity.

France has implemented a temporary ban on all livestock feed containing meat and bone meal and sales of T-bone steaks and sweetbread to protect the food chain after beef, potentially infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, made it onto supermarket shelves last month.

In France, where beef sales have slumped by about 40 percent, the government Tuesday promised aid measures worth $415 million to help those whose livelihoods have been threatened by safety measures designed to fight the spread of mad cow disease.

Cases of mad cow discovered in France have increased almost threefold over the last year to 90 and beef consumption in France had crashed by 40 percent since.