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Farmers Fear for Livelihoods in New Disease Scare

March 23, 1996

PERTH, Scotland (AP) _ Cattleman Robert Smith watched gloomily as another young cow was herded out of the auction ring, sold for $1,048 _ a rock-bottom price worth less than 70 cents a pound.

A week ago, he said, the cow would have brought nearly 83 cents a pound. ``But after these new reports about `mad cow disease,′ I don’t hold out much hope for the future.″

Smith has been hit particularly hard by falling beef prices, caused by fears that people who eat British beef risk catching a fatal brain disease.

His business is buying cattle, fattening them up and selling them. And because the smaller animals he buys are not losing as much value as the fattened beasts he sells, Smith says, ``I am in the worst possible situation.″

Already, he’s scrapped plans to sell 10 fattened cows at Perth’s busy livestock market on Monday.

Smith blames the government ``for not acting quickly enough″ to ban sheep byproducts from cattle feed. Scientists believe that was the vehicle for transmitting scrapie, a brain-wasting disease in sheep, to cattle.

Sheep byproducts were banned from cattle feed in 1988, two years after the first diagnosis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as ``mad cow disease.″

The government said Wednesday that BSE may have spread to humans _ at least, that was the ``most likely″ explanation for 10 cases of the human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

France, Britain’s No. 1 export market, and several other nations have responded by banning British beef, schools have pulled beef from lunch menus and retail sales have sagged.

At a Tesco supermarket in central London on Saturday, most of the steaks, roasts and hamburger were marked down to half price by noon.

``Normally on a Saturday we don’t reduce products until five o’clock. Because of this problem, we have already reduced all beef that’s approaching it’s sell-by date. It’s just not selling,″ said Kumera Silva, a Tesco employee.

Aida Farrow of London said beef wouldn’t be on her family’s dinner table. ``I’ve got two sons, a 5-year-old and a one-year-old,″ she said. ``I can’t afford to take any chances. We’ll be having lamb chops instead.″

The government has tried to boost consumer confidence by tightening regulations on slaughter and butchery, but many farmers see only ruin for their industry.

``This is just about the worst thing that has hit livestock farmers in Britain this century,″ said farmer Jim Herron, who was at the Perth market Friday to check prices. ``Farmers had no control over what went into feed _ but we bear the brunt of this.″

Alistair Donaldson, Perth-based general manager of the Scottish section of the Meat and Livestock Commission, said news reports have exaggerated the BSE threat.

``There are 3.5 million adult cattle in Britain, and at the height of the BSE disease the number of animals with BSE was only 0.9 percent,″ he said. ``Today, that is under 0.3 percent.

``And there is still no real proof that BSE can lead to CJD in humans.″

Traders at British livestock markets must complete a sheaf of forms for animals under 30 months, disclosing what they have been fed and certifying that they have not been exposed to BSE.

Perth auctioneer David Leggat said the cows being sold at Perth had been fed only green fodder.

``They have the kind of diet you couldn’t find in a health food store,″ he said.

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