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18 March 2001 Issue
Mad Cow Disease Threatens Bull Fighting

by CIARAN GILES
c The Associated Press

MADRID, Spain (AP) - Tough European measures against mad cow disease are threatening to bring an end to one of Spain's oldest traditions: small town festivals featuring bullfights.

"The regulations could be catastrophic,'' said Jaime Sebastian de Erice, spokesman for the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders. "Up to 80 percent of the bullfighting festivals in Spain will not be able take on the costs of the new measures.''

New European Union rules state that cattle over 30 months old must be tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as mad cow disease, before they are slaughtered for human consumption. Otherwise they must be destroyed, usually by incineration.

But these measures collide head-on with the centuries-old tradition in Spain of selling carcasses of fighting bulls killed in the ring directly to butchers. Steaks, stew, tails, ears and testicles from the slain animals are popular fare in restaurants and meat markets after each fight.

According to Sebastian de Erice, about 40,000 bulls are slaughtered annually in an estimated 17,000 bullfight festivals, an industry that generates $4.5 billion a year. He said 14,000 of the festivals are small-town affairs run on a shoestring.

Maximino Perez, organizer of the four-day Valdemorillo town festival this month outside Madrid, said the mad cow scare has been an "economic disaster.''

"I lost 6 million pesetas ($34,000), or some 20 percent of the festival budget, just abiding by the mad cow regulations,'' he said.

Perez, who organizes about 50 such festivals a year, said he's not likely to see the season through unless authorities change the regulations or subsidize the festivals.

For the moment, Sebastian de Erice said, neither the central nor regional governments have offered any help.

Sebastian de Erice said the top-category bullfights in major towns and cities are not likely to be affected by the measures since their budgets can absorb the extra costs more easily.

Perez said he lost about $340 for each of the 52 bulls he used at Valdemorillo and spent about as much incinerating each animal.

He said some bulls and calves used in small-town festivals escape the regulations because they are less than 2 years old. The average age of bulls used in the larger festivals is 3 or more.

Some festivals this year have had veterinary facilities available to test the dead bulls. On testing negative, they were slaughtered and the meat sold to butchers, Sebastian de Erice said.

Breeders fear that if one of their bulls tests positive after a fight, it could lead to the mandatory slaughter of every cow and bull on the ranch where the bull was raised.

A fighting bull from a prestigious breeder can cost up to $17,000 - 30 times the price of some cows - and a ranch can have up to 40 such bulls, plus some 200 cows.

No cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - a brain-wasting illness with a crossover, incurably fatal human equivalent - have been reported among Spain's fighting bulls, although 23 cases among cows have surfaced since November.

Breeders say that Spain's fighting bulls traditionally graze in pastures, rather than eat now-banned feeds made from ground-up animal remains - the practice blamed for the original outbreak of mad cow in Britain in the 1980s.

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