Despite the fanfare that greeted the decision in principle to lift the embargo, officials believe June is the earliest date at which exports could resume, several months later than predicted. Under the deal the Government has to invite EU inspectors to verify all the conditions for lifting the ban are in place. They also need to organise a tracking system for cattle to prove they were born after August 1996, the date when contaminated foodstuff was banned in the UK.
The Conservatives said yesterday that the emergence of a letter from the Chief Veterinary Officer, James Scudamore, raised the possibility that the Prime Minister had misled the Commons on the issue last week.
Last Wednesday Tony Blair said the UK had "of course invited the inspectors" but an invitation from Mr Scudamore appears to have been faxed to the European Commission the following day.
It suggests the inspection team may be invited during the week of 29 March or 5 April, the first step in a process expected to take two months. In the letter, Mr Scudamore asked for the normal 25-day period for drawing up the report to be condensed to 10 days. Yesterday the European Commission said the delay was due to the Government, adding: "The ball has been in their court."
Another official refused to confirm whether the 10-day procedure would be adopted, adding: "There is an emergency procedure. Sometimes we follow that procedure, sometimes we do not."
Whatever the timing, the quantity of beef exported when the ban ends is likely to be tiny, because the Government has found few abattoirs interested in trying to rebuild export markets. With consumer resistance to British beef high, few abattoirs feel the investment is justified.
Tim Yeo, the Conservative Agriculture spokesman, said: "It is three months since the much-trumpeted announcement that the ban was being lifted and it is going to be at least another three months before exports take place."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that "one or two" abattoirs had been identified for inspectors to visit.
t The Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, Gwent, where the Prince of Wales was served banned beef on the bone suffered another blow when Eddie Fitzpatrick, its head chef resigned yesterday.
Although he did not prepare the beef, he supervised thechefs who cooked the joint so publicly sampled by Prince Charles and the Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Michael.
The hotel has apologised for any "embarrassment" caused to Prince Charles and Mr Michael, who said they had eaten the meat not realising it had been cooked on the bone.
The apology has not staved off possible prosecution by environment health officers, who have launched an investigation into the incident.Reuse content