BSE AFTERMATH: Blair promises to convince world to buy British beef

Government backs worldwide campaign to kick-start exports as T- bone steaks and rib joints go back on sale in supermarkets
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR promised yesterday to launch a worldwide campaign to convince countries that British beef is "the safest in the world" in response to the BSE crisis.

Mr Blair agreed an "action plan" to promote British beef during a two- hour meeting with farmers and meat industry leaders over a Downing Street breakfast that included beef sausages. Despite the Government's relief at announcing it was to lift the ban on beef on the bone, ministers agreed Britain still had a mountain to climb to win back an export market once worth pounds 600m a year. Beef exports have slumped to pounds 12m.

Mr Blair told yesterday's meeting that despite the "disaster of BSE", Britain was now in a position to promote "the safest and best-quality beef in the world" because of the stringent checks it had introduced.

He conceded there was "still a massive job to do" to convince consumers and win back lost markets. He promised that the Government was "101 per cent" behind the efforts to get the beef industry back on its feet.

The Agriculture minister Joyce Quin will lead an offensive in the 48 countries that have banned British beef but allow in exports from other EU states. Ms Quin will visit many of the countries, and Britain's embassies will co- ordinate the sales push by working with the Meat and Livestock Commission.

Downing Street said Mr Blair would use his "considerable communications skills" to persuade his counterparts abroad to drop their ban on British beef.

It also announced that the Government is to abandon a planned increase in a levy to finance improvements at abbatoirs, which would have cost farmers pounds 7m this year. Next year's rise in the levy will be pegged to the rate of inflation.

The Government also promised to make a renewed effort with the European Commission to ease the export restrictions.

But the prospects of early progress suffered another setback when Andrea Fischer, the German Health Minister, said that Germany would not allow in imports from the UK before next February. Downing Street sought to play down the German announcement, saying it had always been known the decision would have to be ratified by 16 regional governments.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, admitted that Tuesday's decision to lift the ban on beef on the bone was "more symbolic than real" in the context of persuading Germany and France to resume imports of British beef.

Mr Brown hinted that retailers who sold T-bone steak and rib joints before the ban is lifted on 17 December would not face prosecution. He said trading standards officers should take account of the Government's decision.

The Meat and Livestock Commission welcomed the initiative to boost exports and said consumers were anxious to be able to eat beef on the bone again. Its snapshot survey of 500 people carried out in the past 24 hours showed that 77 per cent would eat the meat, the commission said.

Chris Lamb, the commission's consumer marketing manager, said: "Consumers have patiently waited for two years to get T-bone steaks, rib roasts and oxtails and it seems most of them can't wait to get hold of them again as soon as possible."