Letter from Prague

After experiencing the outbreak of mad cow disease in Great Britain in the 1990s, I must confess I have been surprised at the reaction of the Czechs to the disease, both on the part of the government and the general public.

In Britain, the government covered up information about the disease and denied reports that BSE even existed for several years. One British health minister even went as far as to make his daughter eat a beef burger in public, in front of camera crews, to prove that he trusted British beef. Eventually, of course, news broke that cases of BSE had been discovered, four million head of cattle were slaughtered, and consumer confidence slumped. Even now, years on, most people I know in Britain still refuse to eat beef.

Here in the Czech Republic, there was a great deal of panic when cases of mad cow disease were discovered in Germany last year. The impact on beef sales was devastating, with consumption dropping by forty percent in next to no time. After seeing how worried Czech consumers were about BSE then, I expected more of the same when the Czech State Veterinary Authority announced earlier this month that they had discovered the Czech Republic's first case of mad cow disease.

But the reaction I expected, that of mass panic and a complete slump in beef sales, has failed to materialise. Yes, all of the Czechs I have spoken to have described the discovery of BSE in a Czech cow as a pruser, a vulgarity that can be loosely translated as a disaster. And yes, sales of beef have dropped. But not drastically. A few percent perhaps, but the impact has been nothing like that in Britain and Germany. When asked, most consumers say they trust how the Czech government has handled the situation so far.

The reason for this is very simple. Unlike in Britain and Germany, where mad cow disease was covered up, the Czech government, although stating proudly and fiercely until the discovery of the first Czech case that the Czech Republic is BSE-free, has moved rapidly to inform the general public of the results of tests and of measures introduced to protect consumers. By being open, they have boosted consumer confidence.

The one thing that has really annoyed many Czechs is that countries all over Central and Eastern Europe have banned beef imports from the Czech Republic. But at the same time, most of them are aware that when BSE was discovered in several EU member countries, such as Germany, the Czech Republic, along with the rest of the region, banned beef imports from the EU. This move made it inevitable that bans would be introduced for Czech beef, but it is still a bitter pill to swallow. The bans will hurt many farmers, and the impact this could have on the Czech economy is as yet unknown.

And on a final note, this is the first case of BSE found outside Western Europe. It is believed that the infected cow contracted the disease roughly five years ago from milk feed containing animal fat from Western Europe. Considering that Western Europe at that time was exporting a great deal of animal fats and the like to Central and Eastern Europe, the same infected products could have been spread across dozens of countries. It's the first case outside Western Europe, but as I have been told, both on and off the record, it's highly unlikely to be the last.