Consumer panic has disrupted German meat markets after the discovery of a small number of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) cases in German-born cattle. As the government attempts to get a grip on the crisis, the agriculture and health ministers have lost their jobs, and food-supply regulation and research are set for a major shake-up.
Andrea Fischer, the health minister and a member of the Green Party, resigned last week, following accusations that she mismanaged the recent crisis. She lost credibility after making confused statements over which types of sausages contain beef.
And Social Democrat Karl-Heinz Funke, the agriculture minister, resigned after criticism that his department had been slow to enforce a ban on the use of mechanically recovered meat in sausages.
The replacements for the two departed ministers will maintain the existing balance in Germany's governing coalition of Greens and Social Democrats. The new health minister is Ulla Schmidt, a Social Democrat, but part of her ministry's competence — consumer protection — will move to the agriculture ministry.
In an attempt to restore consumer confidence, the agriculture ministry is being renamed the Ministry for Consumer Protection, Food Safety and Agriculture. Its new boss is Green Renate Künast, who has already responded to the BSE outbreak by announcing plans to encourage movement away from intensive agriculture and towards organic farming. The percentage of agricultural land given over to organic agriculture should increase from 3% to 10% in the next five years, Künast says.
Inclusion of consumer protection in the agriculture ministry is an attempt to temper influence of the agricultural lobby over the ministry. It is likely that the Federal Institute for Health-Related Consumer Protection and Veterinary Medicine, one of the health ministry's three scientific offices, will also move to the new agriculture ministry, where it will probably be reorganized.
Like some of its companion offices, the institute has been criticized as inefficient. A report by the Wissenschaftsrat, Germany's science council, suggesting better coordination between ministerial offices, is expected to be approved this week.