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British aid for Katrina victims blocked by fears of mad cow disease
WASHINGTON (AFP) Oct 14, 2005
Fears of mad-cow disease and a longstanding US ban on British beef blocked the distribution of some 350,000 military ration packs rushed by Britain to victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, officials said Friday.

Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the government branch in charge of coordinating foreign aid in the aftermath of Katrina, said his office received orders from the Agriculture Department to halt distribution of the British rations shortly after the food arrived in the disaster area on September 5.

By then, however, 118,000 meals had already been distributed to victims of the hurricane in Louisiana, Sheridan and a spokeswoman at the Agriculture Department told AFP.

Sheridan said the remaining 357,000 ready-to-eat meals routinely consumed by British soldiers have in the meantime been languishing in a warehouse in Arkansas at a cost of 16,000 dollars a month in storage fees, as US government agencies mull their fate.

The decision to block distribution of the meals was prompted by a US ban imposed on British beef products in 1997 because of fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

There is concern that BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD), a brain disorder that has killed more than 130 people in Britain since 1996.

A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said no one realized at the onset that the meal packets sent by Britain to hurricane victims at a cost of 5.5 million dollars fell under the US embargo because of confusion and the enormous amount of relief aid arriving in the affected areas.

"In disasters people have to make quick decisions, commodities have to move quickly and ... mistakes always happen," he said.

Terri Teuber, a spokeswoman at the Agriculture Department, stressed that the decision to stop the distribution of the British meals was not done at the expense of hurricane victims going hungry.

"By the time our inspectors were on the ground we had confirmed that there was no longer the emergency need," she said. "It's critical to the story that our inspectors confirmed that the people were being fed before they held back any MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)."

She said the State Department was now considering what to do with the food stored in Arkansas, some of which expires by mid-2006.

Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman at the State Department, said Washington was looking to dispose of the meals by giving it to other countries but had found no takers yet.

He said sending it to earthquake victims in Pakistan had been ruled out because of dietary considerations.

"We are looking to use these MREs in the same spirit of charity and goodwill that they were provided to us," he said. "We would certainly hope that other countries in need, or other needy populations would be able to make use of them, and we certainly invite any countries that see a need to contact us."

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