Leading Article: The consumers, not ministers, will decide the beef war

THE RELUCTANCE of some of the German and French authorities to lift the ban on British beef imports suggests that the beef war may not, after all, be over. Despite all the efforts of the British authorities and all the patient presentation of the arguments by the minister responsible, Elliot Morley, our European neighbours remain to be truly convinced that le rosbif is truly safe to eat.

Of course, the European Council of Ministers has declared that the ban should end, and this decision has the effect and force of law. Converting this into domestic legislation in some member countries, though, is met with foot-dragging and protests about the rights of individual states. There is a lot of sabre-rattling in return by the British about legal action. The attitude of some of our European partners is certainly not very communautaire. It is, though, understandable.

The French and the Germans are, after all, contemplating some unknowable consequences for the health of their people. The stakes are, potentially, of the highest order of magnitude. We know now, thanks to the research work forced on the British government, that there is a link between BSE and new-variant CJD in humans. We also know that our abattoirs and other parts of the food-processing cycle do not always live up to the claims made about them, and that even the most conscientious officials cannot supervise all meat-processing plants all the time. There remains a good deal to be cautious about.

Tempting as it is to put the attitude of the German and French authorities down to a willingness to protect their own farmers or simple perfidy, there is more to it than that. At the heart of this lies the question of consumer confidence, and that was wrecked in Britain - as in the rest of Europe - by the whole failure of food safety after our meat industry was so carelessly deregulated in the 1980s. It was a very British mess, and we cannot blame anyone else for it but ourselves.

We should not allow resentment at the apparent unfairness of the situation to blind us to what is the really important obstacle to the acceptance of our beef, which is not chauvinism, but confidence. This cannot be restored simply by ministerial fiat. Even if British beef were allowed unfettered into every market in Europe, there is no guarantee that anyone would want to buy it. Perhaps consumers should be given the choice, but as the German Minister of Health, Andrea Fischer, commented: "I think it is also in British interests that we take some more measures of reinforcing trust in Germany about British beef."

That may be illegal, even a touch arrogant, but it is almost certainly right. We will only win the beef war when we win back the confidence of the consumers. We may still need some help with that.

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