How Safe Is Their Beef?

In Germany, a country famous for hygiene and good order, the boast was frequently heard: "German beef is safe." But agricultural officials confirmed last week that two dairy cows of German origin had tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), the ailment better known by the increasingly scary name, mad-cow disease. The Germans weren't alone. In France, where two people have already died from the brain-destroying human form of the disease, another infected cow was discovered. That brought the total of sick French cattle to 190 since the epidemic began. The French government decided to ban all animal feed made from the meat and bone meal of dead cattle, a suspected source of BSE. The Germans also took new precautions, but all over Europe, there was a rising sense of panic.

Mad-cow disease was no longer just a British problem. A new case of BSE was found last week in Galicia, a farming region in northwestern Spain, where a second case was suspected. The two animals had been born and raised locally, which suggested to some that BSE was already deep in the European food chain. Governments were taking increasingly drastic measures to head off a disaster whose ultimate dimensions no one could determine with any accuracy. Greece announced a ban on T-bone steaks from France, following similar bans by Italy, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Russia and the Czech Republic. In Brussels, the European Commission decided to expand its plans to test for BSE in cattle. And the 15-member European Union faced a decision, probably this week, on the legality of national bans on French beef.

Beef consumption declined rapidly as schools, hospitals and restaurants joined individual consumers in switching to other forms of meat. In Italy, the mucca pazza scare was full blown. Restaurants dropped menu items like ragu or tripe because patrons were worried about the minced beef used in such dishes. Italian livestock breeders blocked border highways to prevent the importation of French beef. And Italian officials were writing new regulations that will eventually require a detailed life history of each cut of beef. "Italians will soon know more about their beef than they do about their politicians," said Giovanni Tamagnini, a butcher in Rome.

The panic was understandable. The human form of the ailment, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, incubates over years or even decades and then kills by turning the brain into a spongelike substance. In 1998, Arnaud Eboli, a French teenager, began to have crying fits. "I'm going crazy, I have mad-cow disease," he would scream at his mother. And that's what he had. Last August, Arnaud fell into a coma and was taken home to die. "Statistically, this isn't a big epidemic yet," says Frederic Saldmann, a French doctor who has written a book called "New Food Risks." "What scares people is that the scientists don't know anything." Millions of Europeans are left wondering if they have already contracted the disease--or if it is waiting for them in some harmless-looking cut of beef.