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Court clears government of BSE failures

The sound of cow bells fell on deaf ears with the judges Keystone

The Federal Court has thrown out a call for financial compensation by more than 2,000 Swiss farmers for losses incurred during the crisis over mad cow disease.

After nine years of legal wrangling, judges said the authorities could not be held liable for the losses, but the farmers said they might take their case to a European court.

The ruling, published on Monday, said the Federal Veterinary Office and the Agriculture Office could not be blamed for failing to implement a ban on meat and bone meal in cattle feed before 1990.

The first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in Switzerland was reported in 1990 – the first to be discovered on the European continent. However, BSE initially appeared in Britain in 1986.

The court also cleared the authorities of failing to impose a ban on importing such meal from Britain or other European Union countries.

The demands by a group of 2,206 farmers for a total of SFr300 million ($245.4 million) in damages for lost income also included a complaint about the government waiting until 2001 to outlaw meat and bone meal in chicken and pig feed.

The government introduced various measures to prevent the spread of the disease to humans and the infection of other animals, but a complete ban on animal products was only introduced in 2001.

At the time, meat sales in Switzerland dropped by about ten per cent because of low demand for beef.

BSE peaked in 1995 when nearly 70 cases were reported across the country.

Protracted proceedings

Monday’s ruling comes after nine years of legal debate. In 1999 the finance ministry rejected the demand by farmers saying it was handed in too late.

One year later the Federal Court overturned the decision by the finance ministry, which in turn ruled in 2002 that the federal administration had no blame in its handling of the mad cow crisis.

But then a federal commission in 2004 found that the administration at the time had acted illegally in favour of feed producers rather than the public interest.

However, this decision has now been declared null and void by the country’s highest court.

In response to Monday’s ruling a farmers’ group announced it was considering whether to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

swissinfo with agencies

The crisis over mad cow disease reached a peak in Switzerland in 1995 when nearly 70 cases were reported across the country.

Switzerland was the first country on the European continent to be hit by BSE.

Last year the Swiss authorities reported three cases of BSE in animals which were infected in the mid-1990s.

The first case of BSE was discovered in Britain in 1986.
The disease appears in Swiss cows for the first time in 1990.
The Federal Veterinary Office introduces fast BSE tests in 1999 to monitor cattle.
In 2001 the authorities imposed a complete ban on meat and bone meal in feed for livestock.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR