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How now, missing cow

Posted by Richard Sunday, July 11, 2004

According to a report by Reuters, the EU knows the precise number of cows grazing its fields, but not the number of citizens in the 25 member states. That is the claim of its chief statistician, Michel Vanden Abeele, director-general of statistics agency Eurostat.

"Because of the mad cow disease crisis, we know the exact number of cattle in Europe. By contrast, we can't give the precise number of people who live in the European Union," he said.

Er... actually, they don't even know the number of cattle. The same day Abeele was sounding off, Nick Utting, NFU north Cumbria secretary was attacking the UK's cattle tracing system run by the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) in Workington, on which the EU relies for its data.

The system costs £30 million a year to run, but the Commons public accounts committee recently found that there were more than one million uncorrected anomalies in the system.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Owen Paterson has claimed that in 2003, the system "lost" 93,000 cattle. However, BCMS director David Evans disagreed with Mr Paterson's figures, saying the "lost" cattle were animals which had moved but had not yet been reported and they would eventually be traced.

He doesn't know the half of it. Virtually every cattle producer keeps a few "ghosts", to make up numbers when cattle die or when - as often happens, the paperwork gets out of kilter. This avoids the laborious process of reporting death or trying to sort out errors with a service which is not exactly known for being "customer friendly".

Multiply the errors in the UK, and this amounts to huge number of unknown cattle. Extend this Europe-wide and the number is probably astronomical. But then, Mr Abeele would doubtless also disagree. After all, he is an EU statistician, so his figures must be right.