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British Farmers Gripe About Slow Start To Slaughter

May 2, 1996

LONDON (AP) _ Government officials grappling with mad cow disease ``are running around like headless chickens,″ a cattleman said Thursday as efforts to begin a mass cow slaughter stumbled badly for a second day.

Paul Gentry, who operates a major cattle market in Newark, 120 miles north of London, also predicted the slaughter _ which is designed to reduce public fears about mad cow disease _ will probably be held up for several days.

``It has not, cannot and will not start today″ because slaughterhouses and cattle farmers are still trying to figure out what to do, Gentry said.

``We’re totally in the dark.″

No cows have been killed yet, though the government says the program is officially under way and Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg said the killing would likely start Thursday.

``At the moment, it appears pretty inept,″ Tony Blair, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said in the House of Commons.

The holdups were the latest fumble by Prime Minister John Major’s unpopular Conservative government, which critics have accused of foot-dragging since the crisis started.

Farmers, cattle markets and slaughterhouses were wading through the new regulations, but it was taking time to set up the logistics of the cattle killing and to arrange priorities, a cattle industry source said Thursday on condition of anonymity.

Problems were arising over ``which cows go first,″ the source said: All farmers want their cattle to go first so they can stop paying to feed them.

Britain has the capacity to slaughter 15,000 cattle a week, but some estimates suggest there is already a backlog of 200,000 ready to go. The process could kill up to 800,000 head over the next year.

A special pistol shoots a bolt into the front of an animal’s head. The cattle will then be ground up and either incinerated or buried, said Jean Auty, a spokeswoman for Britain’s Intervention Board, which is handling the slaughter.

As agricultural officials sent out instructions on the cattle slaughter and fielded phone calls from farmers who face financial ruin, many in the industry predicted the slaughter would not seriously begin before Tuesday, after a three-day holiday weekend in Britain.

The embattled industry got a minor boost Thursday when the hamburger chain Wimpy said it would put British beef back on the menu.

``We’ve had thousands and thousands of letters from people asking us to use British beef and saying they wouldn’t come in unless we did,″ said Wimpy spokeswoman Katherine Young.

Wimpy had joined McDonald’s and Burger King in pulling British beef from the menu when the mad cow scare began in March. Wimpy destroyed hundreds of thousands of frozen burgers and has now installed new controls to make sure its meat is even safer than the government requires.

McDonald’s and Burger King said they won’t resume sales of British beef until consumers indicate their confidence has returned.

Britain’s beef business has been hit hard by the scare over mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, since the government said in March that several people apparently caught a fatal brain disease from infected cattle.

The European Union has imposed a ban on export of British beef products.

Britain is hoping to get the ban lifted, in part by killing thousands of cattle considered most susceptible: dairy cows that have outlived their usefulness and any beef cattle over 30 months old.

Critics say the slaughter is a public relations gambit with no scientific basis, but many in the $6 billion beef industry said they have to do something to keep from going broke.

Slaughterhouse owner David Williams described the killing as an unconscionable waste of food, but said he also needs the business after putting his employees on a three-day week because of the mad cow crisis.

``I think Europe deserves to be in a famine,″ Williams said from his business in Woebley, northwest England. ``We’ve got so much, and we’re just wasting it.″