Living with mad cow disease

In this week's edition of Talking Point, Nick Carey takes a look at a topic that has been making headline news for the past few weeks in the Czech Republic: the confirmation of the country's first case of BSE, and the implications for Czech farmers and the economy as a whole.

News first broke in the Czech Republic earlier this month that the Agriculture Ministry had discovered the first suspected case of BSE, or mad cow disease, during tests that it had been carrying out routinely since the disease first hit neighbouring Germany. Tests had shown the presence of prions, or mutated proteins, which are linked to BSE, in the brain of a six-year-old cow at a farm in Dusejov, 120 km to the south-east of Prague. Ministry officials remained upbeat, and said that a second round of tests was underway, which could still prove negative. When the results were confirmed, the ministry announced a third and final round of tests from a specialised laboratory in Tubingen in Germany, amid the apparently still slim hope that that the presence of BSE would not be confirmed. Immediately after the announcement, Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Lithuania banned all beef imports from the Czech Republic.

The third round of tests came back last Thursday, and confirmed without a doubt that the Czech Republic had its first case of BSE. What is more, this is the first case discovered outside Western Europe. The news resulted in bans of Czech beef imports from other countries in the region, such as Russia and Slovenia. The State Veterinary Authority moved rapidly to slaughter a large portion of the same herd. Tests for BSE on the animals, says Agriculture Ministry spokesman Hugo Roldan, all came back negative: The State Veterinary Authority has also adopted measures to test cattle aged over 30 months for BSE. The head of the authority, Josef Holejsovsky, says that the tests will take place after all animals over this age are slaughtered: All specific risk materials, such as brains and spinal cords, which are deemed most likely to enable people to contract New Variant Creuztfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human form of the disease, are to be taken way and destroyed, as well as meat off the bone, which is also believed to be high risk.

Since the results of the first positive test for BSE were announced earlier in the month, the Czech Republic's largest meat processing plants and supermarkets have recorded a drop in beef sales, but not as significant as was originally feared. After the first cases of mad cow disease hit Germany, the Czech Republic saw a decline in sales of up to 40 percent. Having dropped so low, butcher Otakar Moravec feels beef consumption can't drop much further: As tests continue throughout the country on slaughtered cattle, a question that has been much in the Czech media lately is how many cases the State Veterinary Authority can expect to discover. Agriculture Ministry spokesman Hugo Roldan does not expect the figure to reach too high: The first Czech case of BSE was discovered after almost 11,000 tests, a higher number than in surrounding countries because of the sharp decline in beef sales. State Veterinary Authority director Josef Holejsovksy believes that it is too early to speculate, but that this figure could be used to make a preliminary estimate: But one of the main questions being asked in the Czech Republic at the moment is what impact mad cow disease will have on the Czech economy. Not just the costs incurred for destroying animals in herds where cases of BSE are found, but loss of earnings for farmers whose cattle have been slaughtered, or who have lost their export business. Economic analyst Jan Sykora of Wood & Company believes it is too early to tell how much the direct costs will be, as so far only one case has been discovered: But Mr Sykora feels that lost exports could further burden an already over-stretched state budget: Agriculture Ministry spokesman Hugo Roldan says that the negative impact of the beef import ban imposed by other countries in the region has made itself felt, but he believes that the share of exports is not large enough to cause excessive damage to the economy: On the home front, the main battle ahead at the moment is to regain consumer confidence in Czech beef, which the Agriculture Ministry insists is safe, because of all the tests being carried out on slaughtered cattle. Butcher Otakar Moravec is convinced that responsibility for proving to customers that they can eat beef lies with all those involved in the production process: Economic analyst Jan Sykora believes that although the government has moved fast to introduce measures against mad cow disease, conflicting statements from the Agriculture Ministry prior to the discovery of the first case, plus a lack of planning, could further weaken Czech consumer confidence: The Czech Republic is the first country outside Western Europe to record a case of BSE. Although the source has not been traced, it is believed that the cow in Dusejov was given milk feed as a calf that contain animal fats imported from Western Europe. So, can we expect further cases outside Western Europe, elsewhere throughout the region? The head of the State Veterinary Authority, Josef Holejsovsky, believes that if these countries imported similar products from Western Europe, it is quite possible: