A judge is said to be investigating a clandestine export network linking the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, Belgium and France. John Lichfield reports.
EU and French investigators believe that members of the territorial army in Northern Ireland may be involved in the smuggling of British beef to the continent, according to the Journal de Dimanche.
The newspaper says that, following an extensive investigation, it has evidence that beef is being exported from Ulster in small boats and then handled by unscrupulous firms in France and Belgium. European investigators are said to believe that the meat - some of which is held in cold stores in military camps - is being smuggled "with the complicity of British army reservists in Ulster".
The newspaper, which has a reputation for accuracy, says that there are two other principal channels for the smuggling of British beef, barred from EU countries since March last year. Meat is being trucked across the Irish border and then provided with false certificates of origin in the Republic of Ireland; secondly, meat is being "re-exported" as Belgian or French beef processed in Britain when it is, in fact, British-reared.
The newspaper said the activities of four French companies - including one of the country's largest meat traders - were being investigated by Judge Edith Boizette, a specialist in financial and commercial fraud. Several consignments of meat have been seized by French customs officers since June. EU anti-fraud investigators were also said to be holding 140 tonnes of suspect beef purchased from a Belgian meat trader.
The newspaper also alleges that Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, has confirmed the existence of the clandestine trade "in a conversation with a Socialist Euro MP on 28 August".
The newspaper does not give the name of the Euro MP or supply any other details.
According to the Journal de Dimanche, much of the British beef is being re-exported, principally to Egypt and Russia. But many thousands of tonnes have beaten the EU embargo and entered the food-distribution chain on the Continent.
Judicial and agriculture officials in France and Brussels were not available to comment on the story yesterday.