Beef on the bone ban is finally scrapped

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SUPERMARKETS AND butchers were given approval last night to resume selling T-bone steaks and rib joints when the Government announced that the two-year legal ban on beef on the bone was to be lifted on 17 December.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, came under fire for not announcing the immediate lifting of the ban. But he gave a clear signal that traders selling beef on the bone would not be prosecuted. "This lifting of the ban has been long awaited and I am delighted that it can now go ahead. The announcement will bring a welcome boost to the beef industry in what continue to be difficult times," Mr Brown said.

Prosecutions of rebel traders who flouted the law are likely to be dropped as Britain gears up for the Christmas market. The announcement also came as a perfectly timed boost for the Prime Minister's "beef summit" today at Downing Street, which will launch an export drive to sell British beef, with a "British" label, as the safest in the world.

Mr Brown said yesterday that he had told local authorities, who are responsible for prosecuting traders defying the law, to "take careful note" of the announcement - in effect, advising them to abandon further prosecutions. "Theoretically, it is still an offence but it is unlikely anyone will be prosecuted," a senior Whitehall source said.

Tony Blair is also hoping that the move will increase the pressure on the French to lift their illegal, unilateral ban on British beef exports after a meeting of the food safety agency in Paris on Friday. Tim Yeo, the Tory agriculture spokesman, said: "In practical terms, it means the ban is no longer in operation. [The Conservatives] would have lifted it today."

Traders gearing up to sell beef on the bone again included Brian Mcdade in Glasgow, who admitted in September that he had been selling steaks and roast on the bone for months at his restaurant; Paul Robinson, a butcher of Stockbridge, Hampshire, who defied the ban until he was warned that he could face a fine of up to pounds 20,000; and Alan Coomber, a publican and the first Englishman to be charged after serving T-bone steaks at the Bell Inn at Iden, East Sussex.

Many small hotels are likely to offer beef on the bone before the ban is officially lifted. The Celtic Manor, near Newport, South Wales, hit the headlines on St David's Day when the Prince of Wales was served from a French joint prepared "for presentation purposes".

Farmers, traders and MPs across the Commons welcomed the move. Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), had recommended it in September but Mr Brown delayed until the Scottish and Welsh CMOs were persuaded that the risk was minimal yesterday by new evidence from Oxford University about the falling incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in British herds.

The Government could have decided to lift the ban a year ago when it received advice from its Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) that the already tiny risk had become even more vanishingly small. However, Seac left the decision to ministers led by Jack Cunningham, who decided that when it came to public health the Government needed to be seen to act with the utmost caution after the BSE scandal under the Tories.

The Government introduced the ban after scientists had found evidence that nerve endings from the spinal cord could carry infection, and a slight possibility that bone marrow could do so too.

Leading article, Review, page 3