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RTna (Reuters North America) / Thu, Jan 11, 2001 / By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) - Richard Counsell is one European farmer who is at ease with his cattle, confident the latest mad cow crisis can only spur demand for his meat.

Counsell feeds his animals grass and grain free from pesticide, allows them to roam his 300-acre farm in southwest England and has hit on a winner as thousands of consumers scared by a series of EU food debacles have turned to organic beef.

"The shift to organic farming is happening in Britain and European farmers should do the same now as BSE takes hold," he said Thursday from his farm in Somerset.

"Every time there's another scare our customers increase," said Counsell, who had the idea of marketing organic beef direct to consumers at the height of Britain's BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) epidemic in the early 1990s.

He and other supporters of organic meat say a consumer-driven revolution is happening on the farm as shoppers begin to question their food after living with mad cow disease, e.coli and salmonella.

Shoppers want to know where their meat comes from and what the animals have been fed in hopes of avoiding the deadly human equivalent of mad cow disease, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which has already killed more than 80 in Britain.

"It's nice for them to see the farm, to see where it comes from. There's a connection with someone real," he said.

"If you really want to know about the food -- what has gone into it, what are the processes that have led it from the field to the plate -- the best person to ask is the farmer."


Britain has had to catch on fast, with almost a quarter of a million livestock farmers abandoning the factory methods that squeeze animals into cramped, dirt-filled pens and feed them meat-based feed, which scientists have linked to BSE.

Phil Stocker, senior agricultural development officer at organic group the Soil Association, said there had been a massive expansion in conversions over the past three years.

"I get the impression that we are at a threshold at the moment and there are going to be some really major changes in the next few years," he said.

Between 16,000 and 17,000 farmers, about 10 percent of those registered, had used the agriculture ministry's organic conversion information service since its launch in 1996.

"It wasn't really until BSE struck that there was a large-scale level of interest both by consumers and producers."

Stocker said he expected European farmers wanted to switch to organic methods but they faced big obstacles created by a lack of understanding at government level.

In Denmark the livestock and meat board (KF) said it saw any shift to organic methods as a political issue.

"Organic meat represents only a tiny fraction of the market and consumers are put off by the high prices. This is mainly a political question," KF Deputy Director Erhard Frandsen said.

"There is no difference between factory-farmed and organic meat, the rules require all meat to be treated the same way."

A spokesman for the European Union's Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler said it had provided funds for conversion but that it was largely up to member states to decide what to do.

"Organic farming is a matter for member states themselves. They have to set their own priorities," he said in Brussels.

"Under Agenda 2000, ... there is a greater flexibility open to member states to modulate their aid. For example to reduce direct aid to large farmers and to use this to cover additional measures in favor of the environment."


But for many consumers and producers, higher prices for organic food have stopped conversions.

In Germany, lobby group Bioland said output and demand for such meat had until recently been an almost insignificant part of the organic market, but it had picked up pace since BSE.

"Consumers can still expect to pay a price premium of up to 100 percent for organic meat," Thomas Dosch said in Berlin.

But the government says it hopes to boost output of organic food to 10 percent in the medium term -- a fourfold increase.

Stocker said all governments should take such measures.

"There is concern over how long premiums are going to last and what percentage of the population is prepared to pay more for food. ... But a lot of that comes down to policies," he said.

"There's a lack of awareness among some ministers about organic food. But I think that will definitely have to change."

Copyright 2001 Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved.