As Mad Cow Disease Spreads in Europe, Consumers Panic

PARIS, Nov. 30 - It is not only the French who are in a frenzy about mad cow disease. A panic that began here several weeks ago has now spread throughout Europe.

In Germany, a hot line set up to answer questions from the public about the disease collapsed because of too many calls. In Italy, celebrities have gone on television to offer their favorite vegetarian recipes. And in Athens, angry butchers threatened to close their shops unless they were assured that the meat they were selling was safe.

Everywhere, the subject is dominating the headlines and governments are promising action. Many countries are setting up new testing programs and banning one another's beef, trying to reassure consumers that the meat they are buying is free of contamination.

But these efforts are doing little to calm consumers' fears. Europeans are not letting beef pass their lips. They are even inspecting their cosmetics and candy to see if they are made from a base of beef gelatin.Wholesalers from Spain to Germany report a drop of about 50 percent in beef sales. Butchers have seen their businesses devastated.

"It's as if we were suddenly facing bubonic plague," said Pietro Stecchiotti, a quality butcher in Rome whose clients include the Italian presidential palace. "Is it the cows, or have we gone mad?"

The wider panic was partly set off by France's reaction to its own problems. Although the number of cases of mad cow disease remains minuscule here compared with the epidemic that hit Britain in the mid-1980's, the disease has spread. More than 100 cases have been reported this year against 31 last year, though expanded testing could have contributed to the higher numbers.

Concern also increased after suspect meat got onto supermarket shelves and after a television documentary showed for the first time the human form of the disease in a French victim. The young boy, emaciated and unable to recognize anyone, is on the verge of death.

Fears were further heightened after the news that Germany and Spain had discovered their first cases of mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

On Wednesday, Spain announced it had detected the disease in a 5-year- old animal from the Galicia region. Officials said a second suspected case had yet to be confirmed. Two days later, Germany announced it had detected its first case, in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Moreover, Portugal and Switzerland have each had hundreds of cases. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have also had a few. And as feed and animals have frequently been moved across borders, officials said, it is just a matter of time before other countries are hit.

"Mad cow disease knows no borders but is moving from one member state to another," Franz Fischler, the European Union's agricultural minister, said at a recent news conference.

Such cross-country concern has led European countries in the past two weeks to try to outdo each other in what they could ban. Last week, Greece was one of the countries to ban French T-bone steak, a measure the French themselves had taken.

But Greek officials looked as if they were in the minor leagues compared with some of their neighbors. Poland started the week with bans on beef from four European countries. On Tuesday, it banned beef from five more. Italy banned French T-bones and French meat from cows more than 18 months old. Croatia, Estonia and Latvia slapped a five-year ban on German and Spanish beef.

In some cases, these bans may not be enforceable. The European Union said it would review the new prohibitions imposed by its 15 member countries to see whether they would be approved.

The European Union also made several proposals this week, including removing from the food chain all cows over the age of 30 months that have not been tested and expanding a current ban on meat and bone meal in feed from cattle to all livestock. The measures are to be considered on Monday.

Still, the Union is unlikely to be able to do anything about spontaneous protests and consumer fear. Just this week, dozens of Italian farmers blockaded the French-Italian border, inspecting French trucks themselves for outlawed meat and animal feed, which if made of animal parts could transmit the disease.

In some countries, this growing fear is mixed with anger as consumers accuse government officials of having played down the problem. In Germany, for instance, where the first case of the disease was recorded last Friday, newspapers editorials have lambasted political leaders for falsely assuring the public that Germany was free of the disease.

"We believed the nonsense the whitewashers told us," wrote the newspaper Welt am Sonntag. "There probably isn't any safe haven in Europe anymore."

The Berliner Morgenpost agreed. "They made fools out of us with the long-winded promises that Germany is safe."

Germany now concedes that two of the country's 15 million cows and perhaps a dozen more might be infected. But in recent years German officials had assured consumers that all was well and that no new protective steps needed to be taken. As recently as last year, Germany opposed legislation that proposed to take all parts of an animal that represent a high risk of carrying the disease (brain, spinal cord, eyes, parts of the intestine) out of the food and feed chain.

According to one poll conducted this week for the weekly Die Woche, nearly a third of Germans no longer want to eat beef. Eighty-two percent believe the federal government should have done more to prevent the spread of the disease.

In Spain, few consumers seemed inclined to listen to official assurances that the one instance of the disease reported there was an "isolated" case.Within days, the meat industry was severely affected, with slaughterhouses and meatpackers reporting a fall of 70 percent in animals produced for consumption.

Manuel González, secretary general of Aprosa, the meatpackers association, said that exports were "practically paralyzed."

Spain's biggest single export market, Russia, which usually buys around 600 tons of Spanish beef a month, closed its borders to Iberian beef, as has Poland. Brazil has taken similar action.

At the Barceló market in central Madrid customers crowded around the fish and poultry stands, ignoring beef vendors. Many Spanish farmers are part- timers who have second jobs in industries like construction and have little ability to hold out without sales.

"I'm absolutely terrified, and I don't know what is going to happen," said Roberto García, who runs a herd of 20 cows in Galicia. "We are in the first stage of shock and fear of the illness, so we hope that as people realize age is the best security against the disease, they will see that Galician veal is guaranteed safe. After all, it's mad cow disease, not mad calf disease."

However the crisis plays out, this latest problem for the beef industry mirrors the drop in sales that all of Europe faced in 1996 after Britain conceded that there was a link between mad cow disease and its human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The rest of the European Union banned British beef, and European consumption of all beef, no matter where it was raised, fell by 20 to 50 percent.

This time, Prime Minister Tony Blair has resisted calls to ban French beef despite widespread resentment over the fact that more than a year after the European Commission ended its ban on exports of British beef France still refuses to import it.

But some editorialists took a different view. "Britain is badly placed to lecture others," said The Independent. "The European B.S.E. epidemic is an extension of the British epidemic, spread largely by the morally unforgivable even if legal dumping of scores of thousands of tons of suspect animal feed on the Continent after it was banned in the U.K. in 1988."