Beef-on-the-bone hint cheers farmers

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FARMERS GAVE a cautious welcome yesterday to the Government's strongest indication yet that it plans to lift the ban on sales of beef on the bone.

They urged the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, to match his words with action and repeated their call for the beef export ban to be removed "as soon as possible".

Mr Brown said he was ready to take a "political decision" to lift the ban on sales of beef on the bone, leaving "consumers free to choose on the basis of the best scientific advice".

He said: "I am looking forward to eating a dinner of T-bone steak or beef ribs again because British beef is now among the safest in the world."

Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would not be drawn on when the ban would go. But they confirmed that, because of the cull begun in August 1996, of animals aged more than 30 months, all cattle possibly affected with BSE, or "mad cow disease", would have been slaughtered by next March.

Mr Brown also reaffirmed his determination to have the export ban removed by the year-end. "On any scientific basis, the ban should be lifted now. We have done everything asked of us," he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union said Mr Brown's remarks would give "a boost to a beleaguered industry.

"Farmers are in one of their deepest crises ever. We have fulfilled all the criteria that Europe set us to have the beef export ban lifted.

"There is no scientific reason why it shouldn't be lifted now," she said.

The proposed food standards agency has reportedly been shelved after lobbying by supermarkets and manufacturers. The Bill to bring in the independent safety watchdog is no longer expected to be in next month's Queen's Speech.