Britain threatens trade war

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The Independent Online
In a move signalling a new beef trade war, the Government yesterday threatened a unilateral ban on pounds 250m of European beef imports unless they adopt the UK's measures to protect consumers against bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

The defiant message, 15 months after the UK's pounds 500m beef export industry was choked off by import bans across Europe and the rest of the world, is a preliminary shot before a meeting of the European Union's agriculture ministers on 22 July. The agriculture minister, Jack Cunningham, said he hoped the EU would agree on the new controls before the meeting.

But he warned that if there was no accord, he would act unilaterally to ban the import of 130,000 tonnes of beef, worth about pounds 250m and comprising about 25 per cent of the UK's beef market.

Mr Cunningham added that he believed most member states strongly supported the idea of Europe-wide restrictions, even though agreement had proved hard to reach. He said he had already warned EU commissioners Franz Fischler and Emma Bonino of his moves.

The tough line found favour in Brussels last night where Herr Fischler recently revived proposals for a blanket EU-wide ban on offal. But Britain's EU partners will not appreciate being lectured to by the country they blame for giving Europe BSE. Nor will the Commission condone a unilateral British ban on beef from other member states that would be in clear breach of the rules of the single market, officials said.

Mr Cunningham insisted the threat of unilateral action was neither a re-run of the previous government's attempts to force concessions on the EU's ban through confrontation, nor a bluff.

"This is no game. This is no bluff," he said. "I'm in earnest in making this announcement. The draft orders are in my briefcase. It's nothing to do with protectionism, it's based on very important advice to safeguard public health."

Mr Cunningham said he was acting on the advice of Seac, the independent advisory committee, which has previously recommended that the heads, spinal cords, and various internal organs of cattle should be kept out of the food chain.

The measures were originally implemented to reduce the risk to humans from BSE after the Government announced that a number of people had died of a new form of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), a fatal brain disorder, and gave the "most probable cause" as exposure to BSE. So far 15 Britons have died of "nv-CJD", and one death was confirmed last year in France.

Mr Cunningham said: "I am prepared to wait until the July agriculture council but in light of the advice I have received, if agreement is not reached by then I cannot justify any further delay. And we would then implement these regulations unilaterally in Britain."

Professor John Pattison, head of Seac, said the committee's advice to the government had changed in light of the EU's failure to reach agreement on the tougher controls on sheep and beef imports.

The moves come as the Veterinary Record, the official journal of the British Veterinary Association, is considering a paper submitted by an international team of scientists which suggests that there has been considerable under-reporting of BSE in Europe.

Apart from the UK, other EU countries have only reported a total of 352 cases of BSE. Yet statistical studies, and comparisons with Switzerland, where a total of 225 BSE cases were reported, suggest that the EU should have reported 1,670 cases of BSE from imported British cattle alone.