The French are falling out of love with horse meat after hundreds of people were taken ill with the equine equivalent of BSE, the so-called mad cow disease.

The French authorities asked Brussels to outlaw imports of horse meat from eastern Europe this week after more than 400 people were struck down with potentially life-threatening food poisoning. One man fell into a coma and had problems recovering his speech.

The scare is likely to hit the declining horse meat trade in France, already threatened by changing consumer tastes. Although the meat still enjoys a reputation among older French people as a healthy food, it has become unfashionable and consumption has fallen substantially in the past two decades.

Sales also plummeted in 1994 when former film star Brigitte Bardot made an appeal on prime-time television for the French to boycott horse meat.

"We're at the mercy of such outbreaks because each case leads to another drop in business," said a spokesman for the French Federation of Hippophagic Butchers.

The horse meat illness, caused by the threadworm Trichinella spiralis, causes diarrhoea, vomitting, fever and swelling in the face, neck and limbs. It can be fatal if those who ingest infected meat are not treated.

The parasite is thought to have entered the infected horse when it was fed animal protein, probably a pig carcass.

- Charles Masters,
The Telegraph, London

from an article in the Sunday Times