The families of two French victims of a brain-wasting disease filed a lawsuit Friday accusing French, British and European Union authorities of not acting quickly enough to stamp out mad cow disease.
The suit, filed to investigating magistrates in Paris' county court, alleges that Laurence Duhamel, who died last February at age 36 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and 19-year-old Arnaud Eboli, who is dying of it, were victims of poisoning and involuntary homicide.
"Our son is dying. We hope measures will be taken to prevent this from happening again," said Dominique Eboli, Arnaud's mother.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has been linked to a variant strand of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The spongiform diseases eat holes in the brains of victims, and no cure has been discovered.
The scandal has tainted the reputation of French beef across Europe. On Friday, Italy became the latest country to ban most imports of French beef. Germany is also reportedly considering a ban, and Spain closed the doors on some French beef imports last week. Agriculture ministers from all 15 European Union countries are to meet Monday to discuss the problem.
The French government has taken drastic measures such as banning cuts of meat like T-bone steaks to reassure an increasingly concerned public. Since it was revealed that potentially infected beef made its way onto supermarket shelves last month, beef has been taken off the menu in many school cafeterias and sales have slumped.
Eboli called for emergency financial aid for families caring for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease sufferers. The families also criticized the government for reaching out to farmers instead of families.
"When an animal gets sick, the state helps the breeders, not the families," said Jean Duhamel, one victim's brother and president of an association for Creutzfeldt-Jakob sufferers. "Our only way to be heard is to sue. Otherwise, we are left in the dark."
French President Jacques Chirac, who was meeting with farmers in the Correze region in south-central France, said he understood the anger of the families. He described the legal action as "a call for help."
The case is the first of its kind linked to mad cow disease in France. The court will now open a judicial investigation and then an investigating magistrate will be assigned.
Other than the two people cited in the suit, one person has died from the disease in France. In Britain, around 80 people have died from the human variant.
The EU banned all British beef exports in 1996. It lifted the prohibition in August 1999 as a result of new safety measures and evidence that mad cow disease was on its way out in Britain.
Italy said the EU forced its hand by failing to take action Wednesday against the spread of mad cow disease.
"When no measures are taken by the EU, it's only fair to adopt national measures as a precaution," Agriculture Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio said. "We have an obligation to restore the Italian consumers' confidence."
Chirac said he regretted Italy's decision and he would bring it up with Italian officials. He also said the European Union needed to harmonize its rules on food safety.
German Health Minister Andrea Fischer said she is considering a ban on beef imports from France and Britain, the BZ newspaper reported Friday. Fischer told the paper that testing for mad cow disease must be started as soon as possible and plans should be moved forward to place labels on beef stating its origin.
EU Health Commissioner David Byrne has asked farm ministers from the 15 EU nations to report to him at a regular monthly meeting Monday with details on how they are implementing safety measures to combat mad cow disease.