As the detection of mad cow creates havoc in the U.S., alarm bells are ringing in Germany after it emerged this week that hundreds of cattle in several states had been slaughtered without BSE testing.
Careful does it.
Several German states admitted this week that authorities had failed to conduct BSE tests on cattle before they were slaughtered and said unchecked beef could have well landed on the market by now.
Officials estimate that the total number of untested cattle Germany-wide runs into the hundreds.
The revelation has sparked outrage and disbelief in Berlin. Deputy minister for Consumer Protection, Alexander Müller, said "criminal energy" was at play and said cattle were apparently slaughtered off the books in several cases without any concern for meat hygiene. "Obviously there was an attempt to save money, by avoiding conducting tests on cattle over 24 months," Müller said in a radio interview.
In Germany, all cattle over 24 months have to be tested for the deadly brain wasting disease BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as opposed to the 30 months stipulated by the EU. The more stringent regulation was imposed by Germany in the wake of the first case of mad cow detected three years ago. Scientists believe cattle under 30 months old are least likely to carry mad cow disease.
The illness is believed to cause a form of Creutzfeld Jakob Disease in humans who consume BSE-infected beef products. At least 137 people, mostly in Britain, are reported to have died of the disease, either through eating beef or having received blood or tissue transplants from infected patients.
Discrepancies in central BSE database
Müller however downplayed fears that Germany was dealing with another BSE outbreak. He said that from a statistical point of view, the possibility that animals infected with the disease were among the untested cattle is "very slim." At the same time the minister stressed that the important thing was implementing the basic law governing BSE, namely, "every animal has to be thoroughly investigated."
Authorities stumbled upon the current failures in the testing system by detecting discrepancies between the number of slaughtered and tested cattle in a central database, where all states are supposed to feed in BSE test data since 2003.
The German Agricultural Ministry said at least 0.6 percent or 17,000 of three million beef cattle that were meant to be tested in 2003 were affected.
However, authorities have pointed out that the inconsistencies in the data don’t necessarily mean that BSE testing wasn’t carried out in thousands of cattle. In some cases, administrative errors such as data entered too late or wrong addresses of farmers was responsible for the miscalculation.
Possible consumer backlash
Though the fallout from the disaster remains unclear, experts aren’t ruling out a dip in consumer confidence that had been painfully restored after the BSE crisis of 2000.
Matthias Wolfschmidt from consumer group Foodwatch told DW-WORLD that it was too early to speculate on how high the risk for consumers could be. "We don’t have any information on animals that have tested positive for BSE," he said.
Canadian beef rib-eye steaks
At the same time Wolfschmidt pointed out that there is an emotional and psychological dimension to the issue. "There was a huge fall in beef eaters when the first BSE case came to light in Nov. 2000. And though it has picked up again, it’s not the same as it used to be before the arrival of BSE, he said. "Consumers do tend to get jittery."
Statistics show that beef consumption in Germany has normalized to 8.4 kilograms per person in 2003 as opposed to 6.8 kilograms in 2001. That rate is still behind the 9.5 to 10.5 kg average per person prior to the BSE crisis. Germany has 287 officially confirmed cases of BSE to date, 49 of which were discovered in 2003.