Beef war 'must be settled in 12 days'

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BRUSSELS YESTERDAY set a 12-day deadline for a resolution of the Anglo-French beef war and, dampening French hopes once more, ruled out any fundamental changes to the export arrangements for British beef.

The implication of the Commission's statement is that if there is no commitment to lift the French beef ban by 16 November, legal proceedings against the French government will begin. The move by David Byrne, the EU's health and consumer affairs commissioner, offered comfort to Nick Brown, the beleaguered Minister of Agriculture, by clarifying that any new British concessions to the French will be restricted to two areas: labelling and increased testing for mad cow disease.

Three other issues which will be examined by French, British and EU officials tomorrow are already covered by the so-called Date-based Export Scheme under which a small amount of UK beef is already being sold to Europe. The Government's handling of the issue has come in for acute criticism following Tuesday's agreement to continue discussions with the French. The Prime Minister's office yesterday issued an expression of support for Nick Brown, saying he carried Mr Blair's confidence over his handling of the talks with the French.

However, the Government spent the day on the defensive, denying reports that it had conceded too much and insisting that there would be no new concessions. At the same time Downing Street signalled that the Government is ready to allow British beef to be clearly labelled in France. Labelling is one of the key French-and German- demands because it would allow continental consumers to distinguish British beef from other brands. Mr Byrne told the European Parliament that, while clarifications would be offered to the French, he did not intend to amend the scheme which won the unanimous backing of the Scientific Steering Committee last week. "It is the clear implication of these discussions," he added, "that the ban must be lifted. There is no question of re-writing the [export] scheme which does not need to be changed."

But British officials recognise that providing France with a fig leaf for raising the ban is infinitely better than allowing the matter to go to a lengthy European Court procedure. Better labelling is one way forward, especially since there is some existing identification of UK beef. Some meat from grass-fed herds in Britain is labelled under the beef assurance scheme. Beef which is exported under the DBES is marked when it leaves the UK but does not have to be labelled if it is re-sold. Diagnostic testing of cattle for BSE is more complex because, while there are three reliable post-mortem examination tests, there is no reliable and established "pre-clinical" test yet on the market. In Paris yesterday officials suggested that the French ban would be lifted after a few cosmetic changes to the export scheme.

The French Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, was keen to show reason had prevailed. "I refuse these terms victory and defeat," he said. "It was silly to say victory for England last Friday after the advice of the EU scientists and it was silly to say on Tuesday victory for France."