When the globe's rich and powerful gathered to schmooze and ski at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, two months ago, the Europeans had a certain spring in their step. Blackouts in California and chads in Florida were making the American colossus look a little silly. Europe's 2001 growth rate seemed likely to beat the Land of Greenspan's for the first time in a decade. In the members' lounge, elegantly dressed CEOs quietly talked up the coming decade of Europe.
Well, maybe. Thanks mainly to the unlikely culprit of livestock disease, enthusiasm for that happy prophecy has moved to the back burner. It's deeply unsettling for the culinarily prideful Europeans to have questions about the whole human food chain rattling in their minds every time they look at an entrecote.
The mood in Europe is not panicked, but it is worried. Even in Britain, the epicenter of the foot-and-mouth disaster, farm communities may be devastated, but through last week they were suffering in resignation. Denise Walton, who with her husband Chris raises 250 head of beef cattle and 450 sheep in Berwickshire, near the Scottish border, talks sadly about being "at war with a silent enemy, never knowing where it is, and being forced to stay isolated on our farms." Prince Charles gave $720,000 last week to help those hit the hardest; he said he feared a harvest of suicides.
The news will only get worse as Tony Blair's government prepares to send army marksmen into the fields to join the exhausted men known as sleepers, who kill livestock with bullets, bolts and lethal injection. The emergency cull is being called for all animals that live within two miles of a confirmed infection. Blair already faces charges of incompetence and the possibility of a revolt by farmers whose herds are healthy. None of this makes a terribly picturesque backdrop for the election he would like to call for May 3.
In most of the country, however, things are brighter. Supermarket meat shelves are full, and Britons can sate themselves on an unlimited supply of imported meat as well as cuts from healthy British livestock. For most people, the crisis is nothing more than bad TV.
In the rest of Europe, the arrival of mad-cow in January and foot-and-mouth last week is more recent and thus more alarming. There were lines seven miles long at the Spanish border as authorities made all vehicles from France drive over disinfectant-filled carpets. Beef consumption is down 40% in Germany, Italy and Spain. Le Carnivore, a restaurant in the French city of Nantes that specializes in such alternative meats as ostrich, kangaroo and bison, is booming. French farmers estimated their losses at $185 million a month if all the embargoes against their produce hold.
Ireland's Natural Resources Minister, Hugh Byrne, called Britain "the leper of Europe" for not getting a hold on the virus before it spread abroad. And a farmer in the afflicted French town of Mayenne told a British reporter to go back to "your whore of a country." The predominant mood, however, is not petulance but perplexity about how to fix a system that ships livestock in big herds over long distances for sale and slaughter, crossing borders and oceans like any other global commodity, thus giving lethal bugs a chance to spread.