Beef Crisis: Britain ignores pounds 100m EU aid

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The Independent Online
The Government was accused yesterday of refusing to claim more than pounds 100m in EU aid. Katherine Butler in Brussels says the money was earmarked specifically for British farmers following the rise in the value of sterling.

The European Commission said that the Minister of agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Jack Cunningham, was contributing to the growing beef crisis by failing to apply for money allocated to ease the plight of British farmers.

The accusation was levelled at the Government as it emerged that 120 New Zealanders may have been given a blood product derived from a plasma pool whose donors included a Briton who later died from the "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (v-CJD). New Zealand's chief medical officer, Colin Feek, said yesterday that the blood product was being recalled as a precautionary measure.

The farmers have complained at the absence of compensation for loss of income arising both from the collapse in the beef market but also from the rise in the value of sterling against other European Union currencies.

Brussels assessed the problem first in June then in August and evaluated the loss suffered by British farmers at pounds 200m. The commission then offered to pay half of this amount. Four months later, there has been still no move to take up the money according to baffled commission officials.

A spokesman for the agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, said that the payments came cost-free because there was no obligation on the Government to pay the same amount in compensation. Most EU funding has to be "matched" pound for pound by national authorities.

EU sources privately speculated that Britain's reluctance to apply for the aid was related to fears that the United Kingdom's annual budget rebate would be reduced as a result.

The transport commissioner, Neil Kinnock, meanwhile met a deputation of Irish farm leaders in Brussels and assured them he would take whatever steps available to the commission to keep the beef trade flowing.

As efforts were made to trace the New Zealanders who may have been given infected blood, a New Zealand Ministry of Health spokeswoman said the risk of developing the disease from receiving the blood product was "very low to zero", but added: "The product is being recalled because it contains a small amount of human albumin [a protein] which is now known to have been prepared from a large blood donation pool that included one donor from Britain who later developed the new variant CJD disease."