“”Mad Cow”” Disease, France and Europe

In late January and mid-February 2002, a fourth young French man died from the new variant of the Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (nvCJD), and a fifth young French woman was declared contaminated. NvCJD is a deadly human sickness suspected to be caused by “mad cow” disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

These new cases of nvCJD did not reactivate the panic of 2000, when the BSE crisis inundated the French media. But the BSE crisis is hardly over. Even if fewer human deaths result than feared a year ago, the BSE crisis could prove a major turning point, with huge implications for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), French governance, and European integration.

The BSE Crisis and the CAP

The BSE crisis is in some ways a derivative of the CAP, which has induced French (and European) farmers to shift resources away from unprotected soja (protein-rich) crops to highly protected cereals, beef, and sheep. In order to get the amount of proteins needed for improving productivity in milk and meat production, European farmers have often fed their cattle with a by-product—the “meat-and-bone meals” (MBMs)—abundant because European beef production is highly subsidized by the CAP. MBMs are beef parts, offal and bones burnt in a process known at least since the 1880s. French MBM producers are linked to slaughterhouses (specifically to renderers, or équarrisseurs) enjoying regional monopolies granted by the French state.

As soja cakes and MBMs are highly substitutable, MBM prices compete with soja prices. In order to reduce MBM costs after the 1970s oil shocks, European producers decreased the level of heat and solvent used in MBM production. It is generally agreed that these relaxed conditions of MBM production have disseminated the BSE agent (the “prion”) which is almost entirely concentrated in certain beef parts (brains, spinal cords, offal).

BSE has been slowly destroying the European common beef market by triggering bans between the member states of the European Union (EU) since 1989. Intra-EU beef trade is collapsing. The dismantling of other common agricultural markets looms for other meat (e.g. sheep) for the same reasons.

More importantly for the long run survival of the CAP, the BSE crisis has dealt a fatal blow to the longstanding love affair between French consumers and farmers. In December 2000, farmers blocking roads in northern France were accused of being “poisoners” on French radio waves—an accusation reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary 1780s. This blow occurs precisely at a time when French farmers are losing their direct political influence. Farmers now represent only 2-3 percent of French total employment (18 percent of the rural population), and 25 percent of them are aged 55 or over. They have few representatives left in regional assemblies, even in agricultural regions such as in Brittany and Beauce, where farmers are increasingly seen as a source of massive environmental damage. In the French Senate (traditionally favorable to rural constituencies), the farmers? share of seats declined from 11 to 9 percent after the fall 2001 elections.

Falling popular support means that the massive CAP costs will be increasingly questioned in France. CAP subsidies are already attacked as “unfair”—indeed they hugely favor large farms, with the top 25% of EU farms receiving 68% of the CAP price-support subsidies. And the CAP is now routinely accused of being “productivist,”a politically correct euphemism implying that the CAP should be reformed.

Feeling the danger, a few farmers have flaunted themselves as the defenders of high quality French food. But the BSE crisis has wrecked these attempts—best illustrated by José Bové retreating to traditional lobbying (for “Roquefort,” a production in which he has a personal stake) and to a wider political role based on anti-capitalist themes inherited from the decaying Communist Party, but far from the vested interests of his fellow small farmers.

The BSE Crisis and French Governance

Half a decade after the HIV-contaminated blood scandal, the BSE crisis again underlines the low accountability of French governments—and of the European Commission. A recent report from the French Senate on the BSE crisis has devastating pages describing how, since the late 1980s, all French Agriculture Ministers have fought, delayed and limited all the necessary measures for protecting human health. During the fall 2000 crisis, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin granted exclusive public relations responsibility to Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany, sidelining the Health Minister—though the key issue is about human health.

French governments have also failed to take necessary anti-BSE measures even several years after Britain did. For instance, Britain banned MBMs for animal consumption in July 1988. France did the same in July 1990, but only for bovines—a disastrous limitation because it opened the door to cross-contamination through the imperfect cleaning of machines producing food for different species subjected to different sanitary standards (beef, poultry, etc.), through mere errors or through outright fraud. Britain banned almost all BSE-sensitive beef parts (brains, spinal cords, offal, etc.) for human consumption in April 1990. It took six years for the French government to make the same decision (July 1996), once again with some serious exceptions (guts for sausages) which lasted until 2000.

The French have also underreported French BSE cases, estimated at 4,700-9,000 cows.

Indeed, French farmers were still unable in fall 2000 to diagnose clear BSE cases, and there are doubts about the quality of sanitary detection procedures. Interestingly, one now expects the same number (300-400) of human deaths from nvCJD in France as in Britain.

The greatest challenge of the nvCJD crisis to the French government is yet to come. At present, families of those who have died from nvCJD have to go to court (with little chance of success) to sue the French state in order to request compensation estimated at €460,000 per person. Meanwhile, farmers with BSE-infected cattle have swiftly received subsidies for buying brand new herds—on average €2,000 per cow.

It will not take long for grieving families to compare these two figures, and for the French population to note that BSE-related subsidies, presented as protecting consumers, simply fully compensate farmers (and partially slaughterhouses). As suggested by economic analysis, full compensation is unlikely to make farmers more careful about health risks in the future than they have been in the past.

The BSE Crisis, Europe and World Trade Liberalization in Agriculture

Slow to take the domestic anti-BSE measures required for human health, the French (and the other Continental EU) governments were quick to impose bans on British products—for protectionist purposes as documented by the Senate Report.

If closing French markets to British beef (Britain was the fourth largest EU beef producer) has undoubtedly improved the French farmers’ situation, it is likely to have caused the deterioration of French consumers’ health, as best illustrated by the (still enforced) 1996 ban on imports of British “muscle-meat” (meat exclusively consisting of beef muscles). As BSE risks are much lower in muscle-meat than in other beef parts, eliminating better monitored British muscle-meat from French and European markets could only increase health risks for French and European consumers. Similarly, trade bans on British BSE-sensitive beef parts have not protected continental European consumers from the risks of domestic BSE-sensitive beef parts and their derivatives.

The BSE crisis provides two lessons. It stresses the urgent need of deep reforms in the European Union. By banning the domestic use of MBMs while allowing their exports to the EU, Britain has not fully integrated the co-sovereignty dimension implicit in the EU. Meanwhile, by bashing Britain without imposing adequate measures on their own producers in a timely fashion, the other EU member-states have not exerted their own sovereignty. The BSE crisis has shown once again that Europe should not be built on weak member-states waiting for harmonized EU measures.

The BSE crisis is also a clear example that trade measures do not solve health problems, an important message for the world trade community, particularly for the non-EU countries having banned European muscle-meat without having taken domestic measures. Health problems require non-discriminatory health measures targeting foreign and domestic producers.

Finally, the BSE crisis raises crucial questions about future policy. First, is labelling based on country indications (as are the new EU beef rules) a solution? The BSE history suggests not: such labelling is mere rules of origin. Second, what is the real meaning and use of the «precautionary principle,» when so much effort is devoted to guaranteeing farmers’ income on behalf of public health, and when comparatively little is done for restricting tobacco and other drugs which kill tens of thousands of French people every year? This question is best epitomized by the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemia, with billions of euros spent on a disease having no serious impact on human health—merely in order to keep some export markets open to EU farmers. In the meantime perfectly good food that could be better used to feed the world’s hungry is being burned.