Beef scare in Portugal alarms EC

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The Independent Online
A NEW outbreak of BSE in Portugal provoked tough safety measures from Brussels yesterday, and dealt a fresh blow to hopes of an early lifting of the ban on UK beef.

The European Commission proposed an end to exports of Portuguese beef and cattle after 67 new cases of "mad cow disease" were discovered.

In a separate move the EC paved the way for butchers to resume sales of beef on the bone in Britain. Officials said their recommendations to veterinary experts will not insist that beef destined for the domestic market is deboned, although this will still be demanded for exports, when they resume.

The measure means that, if Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, decides to lift the domestic ban on beef on the bone early next year on scientific grounds, the Commission will have no objection.

But Mr Brown's target of having the export ban lifted by Christmas now looks in jeopardy. Although yesterday's decision to recommend a ban on Portuguese beef vindicates British claims that BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is not restricted to the UK, it may complicate moves to resume overseas sales.

Despite the stumbling block, British farmers yesterday welcomed European moves towards lifting the beef ban. The National Farmers' Union said it remained hopeful that the beef-on-the-bone ban, introduced by the former agriculture minister Jack Cunningham, could be lifted by Christmas.

The NFU's president, Ben Gill, said: "We will maintain pressure in Brussels. That would be the Christmas present that cattle farmers in England, Wales and Scotland desperately need and deserve."

Officials in Brussels said the main obstacle to lifting the ban was public opinion, particularly among consumers in Germany, where food safety was a sensitive issue.

The proposed export ban on Portuguese beef, likely to be agreed by the veterinary committee on Friday, will put the issue back into the headlines, increasing pressure on the Germans and other governments to resist a relaxation of the ban.

The EU sent two monitoring missions to Portugal and found that between May and October the number of cases of mad cow disease had doubled from 30 to almost 60. It has now risen to 67. "The trend is bad," a Commission spokesman said. "There is an increasing incidence of BSE, as well as a weakness in controls and protective measures [leading to the possibility that] the disease could be recycled in the food chain."

The Commission argues that Portugal was not enforcing an EU ban on the use of the remains of bovine animals in feed for cows, pigs and poultry.

Promising to appeal against an embargo, Portugal's Farm Minister, Luis Capoulas Santos, called the proposals "unfair, excessive and inappropriate. It is just as safe to eat meat in Portugal as in any other EU country."

But the EU's Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, Emma Bonino, said "the situation is serious".

Portugal has so far reported about 160 cases of BSE in cattle, against about 175,000 cases in Britain. BSE, which is linked to a new variant of the human brain disease CJD, is believed to have spread in Europe through animal feed. So far all but one of Europe's new variant CJD cases have occurred in Britain.

The Commission's proposed ban on beef exports will automatically expire after nine months unless evidence of meat safety problems in Portugal remain. The likely ban on cattle exports will be reviewed after 18 months and Portugal will get financial assistance to help carry through its anti- BSE programme.

Brussels has allowed the export of beef from Northern Ireland, which has a computer tracking system to monitor cattle at risk from BSE.

For the rest of the UK, the Government's hopes rest with a proposal which would allow resumption of exports of beef from animals born after 1 August 1996, the date when a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to livestock came into effect.