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Foot-and-mouth disease has spread to France

PARIS — Foot-and-mouth disease has spread to continental Europe, with France announcing its first case of the highly contagious livestock ailment on Tuesday.

Officials immediately set up a 1 1/2-mile security perimeter, limiting access to the farm in the Mayenne region, and a further "surveillance perimeter" of six miles, the Agriculture Ministry said.

Mainland Europe has been taking drastic steps in an attempt to prevent the disease from crossing the Channel from Britain, where the outbreak discovered Feb. 19 has severely hurt the livestock industry.

Though the disease is not dangerous to humans, an outbreak on the continent would be another economic problem for an industry suffering from plummeting beef sales and consumer panic.

Foot-and-mouth disease strikes cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep, pigs and cows, and in those it does not kill it reduces the production of milk and meat. Its danger is heightened by the ease of transmission: The virus can be carried by the wind, people or cars or spread by contaminated hay, water and manure.

The origin of the afflicted cows in France was not immediately clear. The ministry said they belonged to a farm that is near one that imported British sheep in February.

The ministry said tests had confirmed the cases in the cows from a herd of 114 cattle on the farm. All 114 cows were destroyed, it said, and their carcasses were to be incinerated.

This first case "justifies all the draconian measures that we have taken over the past 15 days," Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany said on French radio.

"I fear that there are other cases and, at the same time, I'm doing everything to limit (the disease's spread)," Glavany said.

Veterinary officials had a "strong suspicion" Monday that the farm was infected, the ministry said. Overnight analysis of tests by France's food safety agency, AFSSA, confirmed it, the ministry said.

Belgium announced an immediate ban on hoofed animals from France and the Dutch government prohibited all transports of cattle, pigs and goats in the country. The German government advised travelers not to bring food back from France.

Britain halted dairy, meat and livestock exports shortly after the first case of foot-and-mouth was confirmed. More than 150,000 livestock have been destroyed or earmarked for slaughter. Five new outbreaks were confirmed Tuesday, bringing the total number of infected areas to 188.

Movement by people in the countryside has also been discouraged, and those who travel to rural areas are being asked to walk through troughs of disinfectant.

The head of Britain's biggest farming group said after meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday that new measures aimed at quelling the outbreak would be announced in the next two days. National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill did not specify what new measures were planned.

After tests on nine herds in France raised suspicions of the disease, France moved Monday to virtually shut down its livestock business, barring the export of animals at risk for 15 days and banning all movement of such animals inside the country, except those being taken to slaughterhouses. Horses were also banned from traveling inside France.

The government had already decided to kill 20,000 imported sheep and 30,000 French sheep that had been in contact with the British animals.

Germany, meanwhile, said it was still free of foot-and-mouth disease Tuesday, after tests on suspect animals from a farm showed no trace.

The farm at Damme, in Lower Saxony state, was sealed off after symptoms similar to those of the highly contagious disease were detected among 99 calves. The animals were slaughtered Sunday. An official from the state Agriculture Ministry said subsequent tests proved negative.

In Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder said a complete ban or partial restrictions on French exports were among measures under consideration to stop the highly contagious disease from spreading.