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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 19:37 GMT
BSE 'manslaughter' threat to ministers
Relatives of French vCJD victims
French relatives want ministers to stand trial
UK and French ministers could be charged with manslaughter over deaths linked to mad cow disease.

Prosecutors in Paris have started preliminary investigations into whether to bring charges, following a lawsuit filed last month by families of two French victims of the brain-wasting human version of BSE, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

The families want manslaughter charges brought against British officials for allowing the export of suspect animal feed after banning it at home in 1989 - and against French officials for not stopping it.

The panic over BSE has spread across Europe
A preliminary investigation into the French lawsuits is to be led by a Paris judge, Marie-Odile Bertella-Geffroy, who made her name examining charges against ministers and officials linked to the use of Aids-contaminated blood in transfusions in the 1980s.

The blood scandal, which has drawn comparisons with the mad cow crisis, ended with the trial of three ministers, including former prime minister Laurent Fabius, early last year. He was acquitted.

In October, Lord Phillips' report of the UK BSE inquiry criticised successive government ministers for repeatedly misleading the public about the threat to human health posed by mad cow disease.

'Heavy responsibility'

A UK spokesman pointed out on Friday that the report had decided there was "no criminal case to answer".

But in their writ the French families said that Britain bore a heavy responsibility for "authorising the mass export of animal meal, which they recognise as being the main source of contamination".

Several court cases over mad cow disease have begun in the UK, where more than 80 people have contracted vCJD, but they focus on charges of negligence rather than manslaughter, a charge more difficult to prove.

Consumer panic

The French lawsuits deal with the deaths of 27-year-old man in 1996, and a women who died at the age of 36 last February.

German cows from a BSE infected herd
More cases of BSE are expected in Germany
Concern over BSE has sparked consumer panic in France, prompting the government to ban meat and bone meal feed, take T-bone steaks off restaurant menus and institute a sweeping programme of health tests for cattle.

Many schools have banned beef from their cafeterias.

The scare, reminiscent of Britain's mad cow crisis in the mid-1990s, broke out in October after three French supermarket chains removed beef from their shelves over fears it might have come from herds where a contaminated cow was found.

The European Union reacted to the growing anxiety earlier this month by ordering a blanket six-month ban on meat and bone meal in all animal feed, and calling for tests on all cattle older than 30 months from next July.

Unilateral bans

The Paris legal move came as the European Commission threatened to ban some German sausages because of fears they may be contaminated with BSE.

European Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne said: "My overriding concern is that consumers in other EU member states are afforded an equal level of protection as consumers in Germany."

German officials had claimed that the country's cattle were free from BSE - until the first case in a German-born cow was announced on 24 November.

Two new cases of BSE in Germany have now been confirmed, bringing the total to five, and more are now expected.

Several European countries have already slapped unilateral bans on German beef and they were joined on Thursday by Germany's neighbour, Austria - one of the few remaining EU countries to be free of BSE.

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See also:

21 Dec 00 | Europe
Austria bans German beef
26 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Phillips report packs a punch
25 Oct 00 | UK
BSE: The spectre spreads?
10 Nov 00 | Europe
BSE alarm spreads across Europe
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