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British beef still banned from schools

THOUSANDS OF schools in England and Wales still refuse to serve beef to pupils and staff, despite government assurances that it is safe. Ministers are now writing to local authorities, urging them to end the ban in school dinner-halls and put beef back on the menu.

Although European Union scientists last month gave British beef the all- clear, more than a quarter of the education chiefs are still upholding a ban in schools under their control.

The Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, is sending a letter to local authorities, emphasising that British beef is now among the safest in the world and telling councils that "everyone, wherever they may live, should once again have the chance to enjoy British beef".

He is said to be concerned that a lack of support for British beef in this country could send the wrong signals to other countries, and that it will further hinder the economic recovery of the nation's farming industry.

In the light of the reluctance of France and Germany to import British beef, it could also cause embarrassment for the Government within Europe.

Figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), show that out of 204 local education authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, 59 are still refusing to serve beef - which means more than 6,000 of the country's 25,000 maintained schools failed to respond to government advice. Meals-on-wheels, council canteens and care homes are also affected by the boycott.

Several local authorities have had to reverse the ban, in response to pressure from parents after France's decision to continue a boycott of British beef and reports that the French feed their cattle sewage.

Coventry city council last week overturned an earlier decision to continue the ban, after parents said the position was undermining the farming industry. Last week, it put beef back on the menu in all its schools, although it will provide an alternative for children who are still concerned over BSE.

The MLC, which campaigns on behalf of the beef industry, welcomed the move and said it hoped further councils will heed Government advice. "We are delighted that schoolchildren will once again be able to enjoy good quality British beef as part of their lunchtime meal," said a commission spokesman, John Gray. "But there are still a number of councils maintaining beef bans which is a cause for concern."

The National Farmers' Union said local authorities were letting farmers down.

"We are very disappointed that some schools still persist in not buying British beef when the Government, scientists and the European Union have all decided it is amongst the safest in the world," said a spokesman.

"We are encouraging purchasing authorities to support British produce wherever possible in the hope that British beef will be put back on school menus."

Beef was banned in the vast majority of the country's schools at the height of the mad cow scare in 1996 and 1997.