WED, 31 JAN 2001 01:15:16 GMT
Will Drnovsek's government permit the production of bone flour again, this time as an export article intended for less developed (and enlightened) countries of southern Europe and other parts of the world where legal restrictions concerning the mad cow disease have not yet been imposed?
AIM Ljubljana, January 19, 2001
"Sounds edible but, in fact, it's no flour at all; all sorts of things are ground into it, from intestines and hides of butchered animals, strays from the city-pound, to rat carcasses!" When this, although scantily worded truth about the fodder used all over Europe for fattening live stock hit the public, the era of the so called bone flour in the meat-processing industry, at least as far as Slovenia is concerned, came to an end. The sentence that shocked the viewers was uttered by one of the most eminent meat-processing Slovenian experts during prime time on national TV.
A considerable portion of the public was horror-stricken by the notion that, in Slovenia too, cheap meat is being produced by feeding cows and other live stock with fodder originating from dead and slaughtered domestic animals of the same species, even ground carcasses. Some commentators concluded that this perverse, modern-day version of a food chain was "an unnatural manner of feeding animals that are not carnivorous by nature", this being an instance of "animal cannibalism". Two days later, the government passed an act banning further use of bone flour in poultry farming. It would be wrong to ascribe the measure to criticism heard at home; it was, much more likely, the result of an identical act passed by the German government a few days earlier. Finally, it should be viewed as a desperate attempt on the part of the Slovene authorities to save the domestic bovine-processing industry, i.e. the meat-processing industry on the whole, as well as an attempt to restore the trust of the consumers.
In the meantime, panic ensuing from newly discovered instances of diseased cows took its toll. An 80 per cent drop in the consumption of beef at the end of last year marked the beginning of a serious crisis in Slovene meat-processing industry. Electronic media gave positive propaganda a try: potential consumers were confronted with TV images of healthy Slovenian cows which, according to the voice of the TV commentators, have not once been fed with anything else but the wholesome, 100 % natural, Slovenian herbal fodder. Posters proclaiming that only meat "of Slovenian origin" was sold there, appeared all of a sudden in butcher shops all over the country and, for a while, this did reassure the consumers. Until new cases of mad cow disease were found out in neighboring Italy and some other EU countries.
Although not a single instance of mad cow disease has been discovered in Slovenia, experts warn that this may well be the result of the practice of taking insufficient or, to be more precise, merely symbolic and sporadic test samples. The authorities have tried to calm public anxiety by claiming that not a kilogram of meat was ever imported from infested countries. But, the whole truth is that no one can pretend to know for certain if a beefsteak imported from Italy really comes from a cow born and raised there. Owing to the free flow of goods on the European market, beefsteaks may well be coming from any corner of the EU market.
"Whatever we have eaten by now, we have eaten...", was the gloomy comment of an interviewed woman. The new Slovenian authorities were left with no choice but to take drastic steps. To start with, so as to drive away the dilemma concerning the wholesomeness of meat on sale in Slovenian butcheries, expensive laboratory equipment for early diagnosis of BSE /Bovine Spongiform Encelatopathy/ was bought in Switzerland. Testing of cattle over 30 months old is to begin in the next couple of days. This in itself will not put a stop to headaches. The governmental ban on the production of bone flour has resulted in an altogether different sort of a problem - Slovenian slaughter-houses produce daily around 260 tons of animal refuse no one knows what to do with now. Until recently, all this waste was disposed of at KOTO (renown manufacturing industry of leather and leather goods), the only plant with adequate capacity for processing bone flour in the country. After much haggling, KOTO and the government have finally reached an agreement - or, to be precise, the authorities have conceded to the ultimatum of the KOTO management, agreeing to their proposal that, as before, all waste will be " thermally treated" in the KOTO plant and until further notice, stored in special, heated containers (70- 80 degrees centigrade) kept in abandoned warehouses, as well as that fats will be stored in KOTO reservoirs. The agreed reimbursement for all this: around 4 DM per kilogram of animal waste or, a compensation of approximately 50 million DM forthcoming to KOTO.
Still, the final solution of the problem is eons away. For one thing, KOTO is far from being satisfied since the manufacturing of bone flour used to be a much more profitable and promising business. If nothing else, food processing (even if the food proved to be lethal at times), had a noble ring to it – something that cannot be said of waste disposal. Furthermore, KOTO sustains that the government is irresponsible since it has not tried to dispose of a single gram of refuse - the only proper way to find out the exact cost of animal waste disposal. Of course, there is an underlying message to the whole argument and what it points to is that the agreed price is not sufficient, i.e. that the government should give out more money. The fact that Slovenia does not have at its disposal a single animal waste-processing plant only complicates the matter further. Neighboring countries are confronted with the selfsame problem. Austria is trying to resolve it by burning animal waste in power plants and cement works, allegedly with no environmental side effects. Fears are rising that the Slovenian government, in an effort to avoid possible expenses of transporting the meat-processing industry's waste to the closest available plant in Vienna, might try something similar.
Public opinion polls show a growing hostility of the interviewed to the possible construction of similar waste-disposal plants in their immediate neighborhood, primarily due to fears of pollution. In the meantime, owing to the fact that KOTO reservoirs are about to overflow, the situation is becoming more alarming by the day. In spite of calculations that the reservoirs are going to be filled to the top within this week, no solution to the problem is in view. To make everything more bizarre, the management of KOTO is now openly expressing its dissatisfaction with the agreed price for the first phase of the waste disposal process: "The government has put a ban on bone flour trade, but it did not say who will pay for the losses ensuing from lost proceeds, which is particularly important since we are obligated to destroy the refuse," is the objection of the general manager of KOTO, Miro Sotlar. It remains to be seen if the government will yield to the pressure of the industry and permit the production of bone flour, but only as an export article intended for less developed (and less enlightened) countries of southern Europe and other parts of the world where legal restrictions concerning mad cow disease have not yet been imposed.
Whatever the case, the public in Slovenia is aware of the threat BSE constitutes to the health of livestock (and other domestic animals fed with bone flour as well) and, consequently, humans. Demand for food produced on "ecological" farms has increased. At the moment, there are 320 rural estates in Slovenia which produce food in accordance with set ecological standards, while another 200 farms will be adopting the said manner of food production in the course of the year. Households which have opted for this type of food production gain the right to use the trademark "biodar" only after two to three years of employing "ecological procedures". Still, the percentage of ecological farms is as of yet lower than in neighboring Austria, where 10 per cent of farmers produce ecological food, i.e. food grown without the use of pesticides and other chemicals. This sort of food is somewhat more expensive than industrial aliments, but is expected to become one the main Slovene export trump-cards very soon, after the country is admitted to EU. Of course, none of this will solve the problems stemming from procedures employed by the meat-processing industry for decades which now, because of BSE, needs to be radically reorganized, literally over night.