- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

PARIS — A mad cow disease epidemic in France went undetected and led to almost 50,000 severely infected animals entering the food chain, according to a report by French government researchers.

More than 300,000 cows contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the past 13 years, 300 times more than the number of officially recorded cases, researchers at the Institute of Health and Medical Research said.

Their report reveals that while French politicians blamed Britain for the emergence of the disease — and attempted to create a cordon by banning imports of British beef — they failed to adopt measures to prevent a hidden epidemic at home.

Only in June 1996 was potentially dangerous bovine offal banned in France, almost seven years after Britain. Just four years ago, as France ignored a European Union ruling that British beef was safe again, infected cattle were still entering the food chain, the researchers said.

Their findings are contained in a report, “The Unrecognized French BSE Epidemic,” published in the international scientific review Veterinary Research last week.

The report came as Paris officials revealed the death of a 55-year-old Frenchman believed to have suffered from variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE. If confirmed, the death would bring to seven the number of confirmed French victims of the disease.

“We estimate that 301,200 cows in France were infected by BSE between 1980 and June 2000,” conclude the authors of the report, Virginie Supervie and Dominique Costagliola. “There is uncertainty about estimates of the number of cases in the early 1980s, but the level of animals infected climbed between 1987 and 1990 and dropped from then until 1992.

“Furthermore, 47,300 animals at an advanced stage of the disease entered into the food chain before 1996, and 1,500 between July 1996 and June 2000.”

According to previous official figures there were just 103 confirmed cases of the disease between 1991 and 2000, during which period the government relied on farmers and veterinarians to report animals with BSE.

Since 2000, when controls were tightened, a further 820 cases have been confirmed, according to figures published last month, bringing the total to 923 over the past 13 years — a tiny fraction of the total estimated in the new report.

“The French authorities have known for some time that the official statistics were not a true reflection of the epidemic,” Mr. Costagliola said.

British cattle feed containing the rendered carcasses of other animals —suspected to have caused the disease — was sold in France until 1989. That was three years after the first case of BSE was discovered in Britain.

In 1989, Britain banned the use of animal protein in cattle food. France banned the suspect cattle feed the following year. Its first reported case was in 1991. The discovery of an apparent link between BSE and its human equivalent, vCJD, was made in 1996 and led to a worldwide ban on British beef. The European Union lifted the ban in 1999, but France continued to maintain the ban until 2002.

The editors of Veterinary Research were so disturbed when they received the report that they asked three independent scientists to evaluate its findings. All three concurred that the basis for the calculations was correct.

“I was very perturbed when I first read the article. I was worried that these figures would alarm the public,” said Joelle Charley-Poulain, a joint editor of the magazine.

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