PARIS (B)--The sharp rise in number of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease cases in France is resulting in widespread confusion about the exact number of cases. The French Ministry of Agriculture repeatedly omitting to announce new cases officially together with information on new cases being issued from all directions is creating complete numerical confusion.

"We need to change our system of announcements because the current one is causing utter confusion on the real number of mad cow cases," an Agriculture Ministry official admitted. Indeed, in its press releases the ministry gives, together with the news of new cases, either the total number of cases detected within the passive surveillance program or the total number of cases detected within the active testing program under way since the beginning of the summer.

The number of cases has, according to the ministry, so far this year reached 47, two of which had not been announced in ministry press releases.

"This is a mistake on the part of the ministry," an official said. "We are now trying to clarify the information we are communicating," he added.

What seems to add confusion to the accounts is that the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA), local veterinarian authorities, prefectures (local government administrations) and even sometimes farmers themselves release the information days before the government.

"This means everyone ends up with different figures for the number of mad cow cases," the official said.

Also, the government is under increasing pressure from the meat industry because the rise in the number of cases means lower meat exports. Jeanne Brugere-Picoud, an eminent mad cow disease expert, said that the increase in BSE surveillance will mean fewer and fewer export possibilities for France. For example, she said, Tunisia was not importing French beef because of the rise in BSE cases.

"Other countries will follow Kuwait's example and impose a ban on imports of French livestock products," she said.

Whilst the high number of cases is triggering a fall in meat exports it also highlights the hypocrisy of the French government on the on-going ban on British beef imports. "The French government decided in the British beef affair to apply what they call the precautionary principle," an official from the Health Ministry said. However, he added, this principle was only applied when it suited the government.

The other factor hindering knowledge of the incidence of the disease is that the herd in which one mad cow case is found is systematically destroyed. Moreover, until recently destroyed animals were not tested. A new protocol is currently being elaborated by the AFSSA to define the rules and conditions of testing all or part of a herd where a BSE case is found. However, those tests will only be carried out if the farmer formulates a demand which limits access to widespread scientific evidence. Also, results of the testing will only be communicated at the end of France's detection program.

This follows a demand from Jose Bove's union, the Confederation Paysanne, to launch systematic testing of all cows slaughtered whenever a case of BSE is detected and to make the results public. The call followed news that all the adult cows from a 76-strong herd which was destroyed in the department (county) of La Manche--following the detection of a BSE case in July--had tested negative.

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