Mad-cow outbreak causes friction with Finland

  • 2001-12-20
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - Finnish Minister of Agriculture Kalevi Hemila this week criticized the Baltic states' decision to ban imports of Finnish beef following the first discovery in Finland of a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.

The discovery of one cow with the disease did not justify what in Estonia's case is a five-year ban on Finnish beef imports, said Hemila, adding that such a ban had not been adopted by the European Union and did not befit candidates for EU membership.

"I discussed this with the Estonian minister of agriculture and told him that it was not a wise decision," said Hemila. "There is no basis for such restrictions. If the Baltic countries are willing to join the European Union, they have to change their system."

Hendrik Kuusk, head of the Estonian Agriculture Ministry's veterinary and food department described Hemila's reaction as "quite emotional." "How can a small neighbor like Estonia treat Finland badly?" he asked. "We've treated the other countries the same way, and we can't make any exceptions for Finland. Imports of beef from countries where mad-cow disease has been discovered are banned automatically."

Estonia has banned imports of beef from a total of 19 countries including all EU member states except for Sweden.

The Finnish minister however was adamant there was no danger from Finnish beef exports. "We take good care of risk material from cows, and we know that all the meat produced is safe. It would be wise if the Baltic countries abolished all the restrictions."

Hemila acknowledged that Finland like other EU members had previously restricted imports of beef from risky countries but had dropped its unilateral bans in favor of EU-wide restrictions imposed on countries that had not taken care of the problems.

Finland tested some 25,000 cattle for the disease this year, while in Estonia only 1,000 animals were tested because of lower financial resources.

No BSE symptoms have yet been found in Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian cows.

Mati Loit, deputy director of Estonia's veterinary and food department, said that until Estonia acceded to the EU it had the right to establish its own restrictions.

"Estonia is a small country, and it has to protect its market since it doesn't have big funds to compensate for losses afterwards," said Loit. "No EU officials have advised on these requirements. I don't think that they would halt our entry into the union. We'll have to harmonize our legal system step by step."

Kuusk predicted that Estonia would harmonize its rules with the EU in the next two years at which point its unilateral ban on Finnish beef would be dropped.

A total of 31 cows have been imported in Estonia from Finland in the last nine years.