Beef ban set to be lifted by new year

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The Independent Online
THE END of the export ban on British beef was in sight last night after a vote to lift the embargo failed only narrowly to win the necessary majority among European veterinary experts.

The European Commission now expects a plan to remove the blockade to be approved by ministers at a meeting on 23 November, paving the way for a resumption of exports early next year.

Although eight of the veterinary experts voted in favour yesterday of lifting the ban, with five against and two abstentions, the majority was deemed insufficient for an immediate lifting of the ban.

But when the issue is voted on by agriculture ministers later this month an end to the ban is almost certain to be approved. For the ban to continue, eight member states would have to oppose lifting it.

Although Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Austria voted against lifting the export ban on cattle born after 1 August 1996 - the date at which it became illegal to feed meat and bonemeal to livestock - yesterday marks a turning point in the two-and-a-half-year saga, which has caused massive losses for British farmers.

A spokesman for the Commission said: "One would expect the vote to be at least the same, and there is always the chance of it improving. If eight do not vote against, then the Commission can act on the proposal."

In the past, votes at the agriculture council have been better for Britain than those in the veterinary committee, and a UK official welcomed the move as "an encouraging step forward".

The Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, added: "This is good news for Britain's farmers and for the country as a whole. It shows that we are proving our case on the science, and that the EU procedures we have followed since the Florence Agreement are working for the UK."

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, described the vote as "great news which puts us on track for the lifting of the beef ban before Christmas".

The scale of the change of sentiment in Europe's capitals has pleased ministers because, six months ago, only Ireland and Sweden were prepared to back Britain's case that its beef was safe to eat. Diplomats will be seeking to shore up support ahead of the agriculture ministers' meeting, aware that the main obstacle to the lifting of the ban has come from public opinion, particularly in Germany where food safety is a highly sensitive issue.

One concern is that the task has been complicated by an outbreak of BSE in Portugal, which has prompted an export ban from Brussels after 67 cases were discovered this year. In all, Portugal has reported some 160 cases of BSE against about 175,000 cases in Britain.

Sales of beef outside the United Kingdom were banned in March 1996 after Britain announced a possible link between "mad cow" disease in beef and its human equivalent Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. All but one of Europe's "new variant" CJD cases have arisen in Britain.

Selected beef exports from Northern Ireland were approved earlier this year under a separate scheme which used a computerised database to ensure exportable meat was free of BSE.

But the Commission's latest plan to ease the embargo would have a massively beneficial impact on the agricultural sector because most of the beef exported is from young animals, born since August 1996.