For the first time since he began raising cattle in an ecological
idyll, Karl-Heinz Manzke looks set to turn a profit.
Suddenly, after a decade of mounting personal debt and public
indifference toward foods raised in harmony with Mother Nature, the beef
and veal Manzke raises in the rolling countryside along the Polish border
are in demand by more than just the politically correct and
Europe's "mad cow" scare has propelled organic farming from an obscure
niche to an oasis of perceived safety. Many consumers fear that
mass-produced meat is more vulnerable to a fatal, brain-destroying
disease that scientists believe is linked to a similar illness in humans.
With sales of eco-products up 60% throughout the European Union while
conventionally produced beef has lost 80% of its market, Manzke plans to
add an additional 150 heifers to his 450 cows as soon as he can acquire
land from nearby farms that are going under.
But even organic farmers such as Manzke doubt their ability to feed
the masses, or the wisdom of trying. They concede that too little is
known about the cause or spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or
BSE--commonly called "mad cow" disease--or about how it jumps the species
chain and infects humans for them to be certain that ecologically correct
operations are unaffected.
The psychological scars and economic damage following recent
discoveries of BSE-infected cattle in France, Germany, Austria, Spain,
Denmark and Italy extend far beyond the meat industry and Europe's
farmers. The outbreaks of BSE have shattered public confidence in many
foods and in governments' ability to ensure consumer safety.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has put this country's farmers on
notice that a thorough reform of agriculture is planned and will be
conducted with more concern for the consumer and the environment than for
the interests of the agro-industrial lobby.
Today, though, only about 2% of Europe's food is produced on organic
farms, due largely to an EU subsidy structure that disproportionately
rewards mass production. In the case of farms affected by BSE, those with
the biggest herds stand to gain the most in compensation if, as expected,
the alliance orders the slaughter and incineration of 2 million cows to
remove the surplus now depressing the market.
Germany's newly appointed minister for consumer protection, food and
agriculture, Renate Kuenast, has set a goal of increasing the share of
organic farming to 10% by 2010, along with expanding research into its
safety and that of various pesticides and chemical additives. Going her
one better, the EU commissioner for agriculture, Franz Fischler, says the
share could reach 20%.
But with organic products costing at least 30% more than foods raised
with industrial methods because of the extra care and feeding required,
no one is certain how much more consumers will be willing to pay--or for
how long. Even conventional foods are likely to become more costly now
that BSE testing of older cows, which are thought to be more susceptible
to the disease, will add to the price of production. Funds will also have
to be found from state and EU budgets to compensate farmers whose herds
must be destroyed.
Dairy Products Can't Be Proclaimed Safe
The beef crisis also has cast suspicion on other foods and pitted
producers against one another in a continent-wide blame game. Kuenast has
acknowledged that dairy products cannot be proclaimed BSE-free with so
little scientific evidence to go on. The quality of pork from Bavaria is
under suspicion following news that farmers in the southern German state
have been treating pig feed with antibiotics that are banned because of
the dangers they pose to humans.
In Italy, police have confiscated stashes of illegally imported beef
in several cities, the first evidence that the scare has spawned a new
trade for the criminal underworld.
French relatives of those who have died from BSE's human
form--Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD--are suing British authorities
for continuing to export suspect animal feed for years after ground
animal parts in the feed were linked to the spread of BSE.
The atmosphere of panic and suspicion has spread beyond Europe.
Countries as far away as South Korea and Malaysia have outlawed beef
imports from EU states, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is
pondering a ban on blood donations from anyone who has spent a total of
10 years or more in European countries hit by BSE.
Health officials and consumer advocates expect food safety worries to
ease with time. But they say anger and distrust will persist for years
because of lessons not learned earlier.
Britain, where more than 80 people have died from CJD and 180,000 head
of cattle were found to be infected before testing was halted and all
older cows slaughtered, banned fodder containing animal parts in 1988.
Still, the country continued to export feed that couldn't be sold legally
in Britain. In France, Germany and other European states where BSE has
struck, feed producers continued to add bone meal and other animal parts
to boost the fodder's protein content until October, regardless of
scientists' strong suspicions that the additives were the vehicles for
Government leaders throughout the EU are being held accountable for
failing to recognize the dangers. Germany's health and agriculture
ministers were forced to resign this month for allowing the disease to
spread to this country, and Bavarian Agriculture Secretary Barbara Stamm
was sacked Tuesday over the pig feed scandal.
But the "mad cow" crisis may have a silver lining: It is prompting
"Never was there such a great opportunity to end the squandering of
taxes," the cerebral German weekly Die Zeit contended in a recent
edition, noting that for Germany alone, "Brussels [the EU headquarters],
Berlin and the state governments donate nearly $7 billion a year to fewer
than 500,000 farmers."
The $500 per head that the EU pays farmers in compensation for cattle
destroyed as a market-correcting measure may be more money than they
would get by selling the meat, as prices have been driven down by
Kuenast, a lawyer and an influential member of the environmentalist
Greens party that shares power with Schroeder's Social Democrats, made it
one of her first orders of business to urge an overhaul of subsidies in
order to aid organic farmers.
While consumer advocates also see an opportunity for reforming
agriculture, they worry about the psychological effects of a prolonged
food safety debate.
"If this crisis atmosphere extends too far, people will develop a
sense of fatalism, that it doesn't matter what is done because we're all
going to die anyway," says Edda Mueller, a scientist who heads the German
Assn. for Consumer Protection. "It is more productive to give people a
feeling that something can be done to improve the situation."
But she accuses consumers of having shirked their responsibilities by
choosing cheaper foods over the organically grown alternatives, fostering
a market oriented toward quantity rather than quality. Almost 98% of meat
sold in Germany is from industrialized farms.
"The average German household spends only about 12% to 13% of its
budget on food, which is far less than in other countries," says Mueller.
"Germans have other priorities, like their homes, a nice car and the
ability to travel. They need to better develop their culinary interests."
Advocates of more considerate relations between man and nature argue
that there are alternatives between the extremes of the agro-industry and
the purists who reject all use of fertilizers, pesticides and
About 200 small and medium-sized enterprises belong to Germany's
Neuland food production concern, which is dedicated to humane animal
treatment, says Heidemarie Klingbeil, an agronomist who heads the natural
farming association. Neuland associates must allow their cattle and
poultry to graze on open ranges.
"For decades, we've been raping the land and torturing the animals,
and now nature is striking back," Klingbeil says. "What is happening in
agriculture today is nothing short of perverse. We're now talking about
taking money from taxpayers to destroy meat from cows raised the wrong
way while millions of people in the world are starving."
Resolving the BSE crisis and reforming agriculture are tasks best
accomplished on a Europe-wide basis, farmers and consumers agree. But the
two-tiered nature of agrarian regulation, split between individual
nations and the EU, allows politicians to deflect responsibility.
Heinz Christian Baer, head of the farmers association in Hesse state,
which is home to half of Germany's 270,000 cattle and dairy farms,
accuses Schroeder of vilifying big agricultural operations and setting
unrealistic goals for organic production.
"The notion of producing 20% of our food on eco-farms is out of the
question, not because of the farmers' preferences but because of those of
the consumer," Baer says. "Once the crisis abates, people will go back to
buying conventionally produced meat instead of expensive eco-products."
'Meat Is Safer Today Than It Has Ever Been'
Despite the panic, some officials continue to caution against
"Meat is safer today than it has ever been in the past," insisted
Umberto Veronesi, an oncologist, a vegetarian and Italy's health
minister, at a news conference after his country's first case of BSE was
Even the practitioners of environmentally sensitive farming say they
fear that emotional reactions are fleeting and that consumers will resume
their disregard for the indelicacies of farming once BSE is eradicated.
"I won't damn the mass production of meat--we all have our roles to
play in feeding the world. We just need reasonable controls and standards
to prevent endangering the environment or consumers," says Manzke, the
beef and veal farmer, who has visited cattle operations in the American
Midwest and found the mass-scale agribusiness there even more daunting.
"People want products they can trust because they know where they were
grown and they know something about the people who raised them," he says.
"If anything good can be said to come out of this crisis, maybe it will
be to force more regionalization."
Times researchers Janet Stobart in London, Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris
and Maria De Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times