As the Horsemeat Hysteria Spreads, E.U. Opens a Mad-Cow Can of Worms

European Union leaders struggling to surmount a massive horsemeat-for-beef scandal stun incredulous observers by reauthorizing livestock feed banned in 1997 to battle deadly Mad Cow epidemic.

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Frank Augstein / AP

Butchers stand in front of a pile of dead cows at the facility for the destruction of animal corpses in Oberding near Munich, March 21,1997.

Like humor, the key to successful politics is frequently timing. That may explain why a recent food-policy decision by E.U. officials is going over like a lead balloon.

On Feb. 14, members of the E.U.’s executive body took a break from Europe’s horsemeat-impersonating-beef scandal to reauthorize a type of animal feed that was banned in 1997 to battle mad-cow disease — an illness that infected nearly 500,000 animals in Europe and killed around 200 people. Observers now grimly marvel at mad-cow-era precautions being rolled back at the very moment the horsemeat flap is raising new concerns about the safety of Europe’s food industry.

(MORE: Whoa, Nelly! European Leaders Scramble to (Sur)Mount Horsemeat Scandal)

“It’s not a good time,” lamented Guillaume Garot, France’s Junior Minister for the Food Industry, on Feb. 15 — just four days ahead of the Tuesday news that Europe’s horsemeat scandal had spread to Nestlé, the world’s largest food group. “You’d have to have the political sense of an oyster to damage peoples’ perception of Europe this way,” Isabelle Thomas, a French member of the European Parliament, said of the move to lift the mad-cow-related animal-feed ban just now. “We demand the commission immediately revise this decision.”

Though the timing of the move, which ends the 15-year prohibition of using animal remains to feed other livestock, was terrible at best, E.U. officials defend reauthorization of processed-animal proteins (PAP) as scientifically sound. The initial interdiction was motivated by suspicions that PAP — whose content often turned livestock into de facto cannibals of fellow species members — may have played a role in ruminants developing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which later spread to human consumers of meat. The new rules allow feed made of restricted parts of pigs and poultry to be used to feed fish starting June 1. Poultry and pig farmers may use feed made from each other’s species as of 2014. The ban on feeding ruminants’ PAP (i.e. of cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) — or using them to produce such meal — remains prohibited.

“The most recent scientific findings [demonstrate] the risk of BSE transmission is negligible between non-ruminant animals, provided there is no recycling within species,” the European Commission communiqué explained.

Besides the awkward timing — which has injected the old health fears of mad cow into the already stomach-roiling consumer-fraud horsemeat scandal — critics of the reauthorization decision say it’s the result of Brussels caving to livestock-farming lobbyists demanding resumed use of cheaper animal-based feeds to replace the current vegetal options. French Ecology Minister Delphine Batho decried the PAP move during a Feb. 17 interview with Paris radio station RCJ and argued “giving fish meat to eat” was an aberration of the natural order driven by the “absurdity of financial logic.”

Since France’s fish, poultry and pig farmers act on that same bottom-line logic as much as their European competitors do, it’s only a mater of time before PAP-raised livestock turn up in French butcher shops. To prepare for that day, Batho is calling for new specifications allowing consumers to avoid livestock raised on animal-based feed if they wish to. Given events of the past few days, however, consumers may well view the proposed labeling measure as a real joke — coming, as it does, from officials still struggling to explain how tons of illicit horsemeat made it into beef-based products in Europe’s highly regulated food chain.

(MORE: Pony Burgers? Europe Gags on a Horsemeat Scandal)