Beef ban could be lifted before Christmas

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT put a target date on the lifting of the European beef ban yesterday in its most optimistic statement yet over efforts to conclude the two-year dispute.

On his first visit to Brussels as Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, who was promoted to the Cabinet in the summer reshuffle, said it was his "objective to get the issue resolved before Christmas".

His comments raise the stakes over the ban, although he conceded that the issue would not be addressed "until after the German elections" at the end of the month. That effectively gives Mr Brown just three months to achieve his new target.

Mr Brown's optimism marks a change of tone from the Government, which has so far been cautious about giving any time-scale for a lifting of the ban. The minister was, however, careful to stress that this was an objective, rather than a firm commitment.

Progress has already been made, and exports of beef from Northern Ireland, where a computer-tracking system is in operation, is now permitted. Before the summer break, the European Commission put forward a proposal for a lifting of the moratorium on beef exports under a date-based scheme that would allow the sale of beef from all cattle born after August 1996 - the overwhelming majority of British meat. However, no vote has yet been taken and Germany, where consumers are particularly sensitive to food safety issues, has been more resistant to a quick move.

Yesterday, Mr Brown said that Austria, which had also been thought to be cautious, was anxious to take a "relatively neutral position" because it was in the presidency.

The minister added that the EU's latest inspection report on conditions in Britain was "broadly supportive" despite some caveats. And he said there was no reason to suppose that recent worries about transmission of BSE to sheep would harm his efforts to get the ban lifted.

Mr Brown took over as Agriculture Minister from Jack Cunningham in the summer reshuffle. Some feared the change of personnel could delay efforts to get the beef ban lifted, but Mr Brown stressed yesterday that there had been continuity among officials dealing with BSE.