Food Safety Alters Europe's Farms ; as Beef Sales Fall, EU Farmers and Consumers Turn to 'Natural' Products

Article excerpt

What is deep red, tasty, and twice as popular in France as it was six months ago?

Horsemeat.

As one catastrophic illness after another breaks out among European livestock herds, the crisis is forcing fundamental changes in how farmers raise the continent's food. Sales of organic and free-range products are up sharply. "Locally grown" are the new buzzwords. Green politicians find their views suddenly in the mainstream. And consumers are radically reshaping their eating habits.

"I eat less meat than I used to, and I'm more vigilant about what I do eat," says Dominique Grandin, buying himself a piece of horse steak in Paris. Free-range horseflesh, he adds, is not only more likely to be free of disease. "It has taste, finesse, and it's tender."

Not everyone here has turned to the boucheries chevalines (horse butchers), identified by illuminated horses' heads over their doorways. But with fears that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease will spread beyond Britain and France adding to concerns about a "mad-cow epidemic," Europeans are turning away from beef in droves.

And on a continent that has turned itself into an agro- industrial powerhouse over the past half-century, relying on food and drink for exports of nearly $70 billion a year, widespread animal illnesses are a disaster.

Britain's beef industry almost collapsed in the wake of the mad- cow, or BSE, scare, and European officials are furious that the United States, Australia, and a host of other countries have banned the import of any European meat since foot-and-mouth was found in France. The bans are "excessive and unnecessary," European Union food-safety commissioner David Byrne complained in a speech last week.

But it's the tumbling consumption at home that hurts most. In Germany, beef sales are down by 70 percent since BSE was first discovered there in November. Across the continent, beef sales have dropped by 27 percent.

Over the past year, Europeans have been shocked to find dioxin in Belgian chicken feed and alarmed by the prospect of genetically modified grain in US imports, but it is BSE that has panicked them. Nor is there any sign that the illness, which recently spread to Spain, Germany, and France, will disappear soon, agricultural experts say.

The most dramatic plague to strike farmers, though, is the foot- and-mouth that is currently ravaging cattle, pig, and sheep farms in Britain, where more than 300 outbreaks have been reported in the month since it was first discovered.

Palls of smoke from the giant funeral pyres used to destroy suspect animals hang over the British countryside. About 278,000 animals have been destroyed, or are about to be destroyed, in a bid to prevent the further spread of the disease.

TV reports of tearful farmers watching years of careful breeding go up in smoke, or French voters walking through troughs of disinfectant to polling stations, have focused on the tragedy and the inconveniences of foot-and-mouth. But the harsh economic costs are becoming clear: In Britain alone, the current outbreak will cost $12.9 billion, the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research reported. And the tourism industry has been hard hit.

Experts say foot-and-mouth is highly infectious among cloven- hoofed animals, but poses little risk to humans. …