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WED, 28 NOV 2001 00:25:47 GMT

Slovenia and the BSE

Panic Over a Mad Cow

The discovery of a first infected animal represents the hardest hit ever for the Slovenian stock-breeding

AIM Ljubljana, November 22, 2001

"Will you ever again dare buy meat?" a concerned question of a lady-owner of a private butcher shop in the centre of Ljubljana, asked on the day when the results of tests carried out in the Bern laboratories confirmed that several days ago a first "mad cow" had been truly discovered in Slovenia, did not sound exaggerated at all. The shop was spick-and-span as usual and show-cases filled with all kinds of meat. The line in front of this shop is usually rather long, and customers patient, but this time there was no one. A large board with a slogan "We sell meat of Slovenian breeders", which was a propaganda message that some years ago restored the trust of scared customers when the BSE scare haunted Europe and sick animals were being killed on a massive scale, has acquired a completely different meaning. Therefore, an addition written on a piece of paper was hastily put up: "All meat checked and tested for BSE by veterinarians". For many such reassurances are obviously not enough. That is why November 20, the day confirmation arrived from Switzerland that the mad cow disease was detected in Slovenia, will be entered in black letters in the history of Slovenian stock-breeding and economy. There are still no precise data how much has this influenced the decrease of the sale of meat, but according to first optimistic assessments fresh meat trade in Slovenia has been reduced by half.

Panic because of the BSE, i.e. "bovine spongioform encephalopathy" as the "mad cows" disease is officially called has spread over Slovenia the moment when veterinary services informed the Ministry of Agriculture - and the Minister informed the public - that the so called "quick test" used on a cow in the Gornja Savinska Valley showed that the cattle might have the BSE. The tests were repeated twice and the result was the same so that samples were sent to one of the authorised Swiss laboratories. Even before the official results came from Bern, the media interviewed the owner of the infected cow - Brane Rihter from Tirosek in the commune of Gornji Grad. The front pages of Slovenian newspapers published a picture of Agriculture Minister Franc But with Rihter couple. They were photographed standing in front of a cross with a worried expression on their faces. And they have every reason to be because no one can explain how did the disease came to Slovenia. The owner of the infected cow claims that he never fed his cattle with the "bone meal" mixture, which is one of the things that causes this disease.

The use of bone meal as cattle feed has been prohibited in Slovenia since 1996, and as of last year pig and other animals have also been included in that prohibition. However, it turned out that pigs were raised at the same farm where the first BSE infected cow had been discovered, which pointed to a possibility that cows got in touch with the prohibited feed through pigs. This cow also had its weanlings, two calves - one had already been slaughtered, while the other is still on the farm. His fate is certain –he will be euthanasied together with his mother and surrendered to a pound. Their remains will be burned, the farm sterilised and after that placed under special supervision. After the first case of mad cows was detected, the Slovenian Ministry of Agriculture established a special Working Group for the BSE, which should meet twice a week.

The media was on a veritable hunt searching for the unfortunate farmer, until he presented himself to the public so as to stop this chase that went on in the surrounding villages. Reporters were much less interested in the consumers' fear of the dangers lurking from the plate, especially in view of the mentioned board with information on the meat from exclusively Slovenian farms as the most popular demagogic protection for terrified consumers. And while the whole Europe was destroying entire herds, Slovenia created an illusion of security, because everything remained within the national borders. This has now turned into negative publicity. It is very unlikely that there is such national awareness that would force anyone to eat a suspicious meat-ball.

Interestingly enough, certain national mobilisation was achieved thanks to reports on those outside Slovenian borders who promptly prohibited the import of Slovenian meat. Traditional buyers of Slovenian meat, primarily those in the neighbourhood, were divided. Already the next day, Croatia banned import of Slovenian meat, whereas Italy did not do it even after the confirmed reports from Bern. Other states, former Republics of the SFRY, sided with Croatia, which the Slovenian media interpreted as a kind of treason: "Middleman from Southern markets have turned their back on Slovenian exporters, although they are offered healthy and safe meat." That was how the Ljubljana daily the "Delo" (Work) wrote.

Other media also assumed the tone of the leading daily and complained in great detail about "unreliable partners" from Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Officials from the Slovenian Ministry of Economy tried to ease their conscience by statements that those moves were expected and that the result would be increased home reserves and the unavoidable drop of the Slovenian meat prices, at least until the situation stabilised again. In the meantime, officials of the Agriculture Ministry did not miss the opportunity to say something at the expense of former importers of Slovenian beef: "We are being criticised by those whose countries do not apply any tests for detecting BSE in cattle and which, to this very day, have not prohibited the use of bone meal as animal feed!"

Until now, on the European scale of the probability of the BSE prevalence Slovenia ranked second, which means that the danger was "possible, but not very probable". It should be also said that irrespective of that, the state invested enormous efforts and even larger sums of money for the system of early detection and control of the disease. Just on a laboratory which tests animals for BSE and the meat control system, the Agriculture Ministry spent about DM 2.5 million and additional DM 5 million for other precautionary measures. Since early November, each head of cattle older than 30 months has to be tested for BSE.

Until now 25,973 animals were tested and all were negative. In addition, 842 perished, 252 euthanasied and 1,626 infected animals were also tested. All tests were negative until the infected five-year old milking cow was discovered. It was selected for testing because of its unusual behaviour. Because of the BSE, Slovenia had previously changed its meat importing policy - this year alone it imported 12,879 heads of cattle and 95,341 tons of meat from East European states, whereas it bought only 55 heads of cattle and 45 tons of meat from the European Union. It's quite another things whether this was a wise policy since Slovenia imported cattle from Poland and Czech Republic, where no BSE cases had been officially registered. However, these countries do not have a good system for detecting the infection.

Recently, many interventions and prevention measures have been taken (albeit too late) and produced first results. It thus happened that a part of the public received with sympathies the official and confirmed detection of the first BSE case in Slovenia. This was interpreted as a proof that problems were not being covered up and the public was not lied to, which was a good basis for restoring the consumers' trust. On top of it, the officials pointed out that the infected cows were not a signal for alarm, but rather a proof that veterinary services were doing their job professionally, that enormous funds that had been invested in the control of livestock and meat were producing first results, whereas successful integration into modern Europe was also mentioned in this context. "Finally we, the Slovenes, got our first mad cow. For three-four years now that disease has been scaring Europe. It was detected in Great Britain, Belgium and even Slovakia. Until now Slovenia was a kind of Indian reservation which the BSE virus did not reach. Now we have our own mad cow, which is a kind of emancipation," concluded sarcastically "The Delo" columnist Boris Jez. Other reporters recognised this as a proof of a modern state organisation in which the detection of this disease was bound to happen sooner or later.

Ministry of Agriculture had no other choice but to admit the discovery of the BSE since it would be "sheer madness to try and cover up grounded and three times confirmed suspicions". This is all a confirmation of the fact that the Slovenian agriculture is "out in the open, but not the way Minister had in mind". Be that as it may, there is little luck in every misfortune. The first mad cow finally made Ministry of Agriculture introduce the long-promised system of steak labelling "from the barn to the plate" so that every consumer may in future know which farm (and which cattle) the meat he is buying is coming from. That is, if after the latest scandal anyone buys beef at all.

Svetlana Vasovic

(AIM)