BSE-risk beef being sold in British markets

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The Independent Online
Meat exporters are selling BSE-risk beef to markets such as Smithfield in London for human consumption, a spokesman for the International Meat Trade Association revealed last night.

An association briefing note, circulated to MPs in advance of a short Commons debate today, says: "Beef over 30 months of age is being sold on the open market."

The meat is not caught by Government curbs on the sale of "old" beef because it was slaughtered before the critical cut-off of midnight on 28 March - and had been destined for export.

However, because of the worldwide ban on British beef exports, about 4,500 tons of potentially suspect beef is now in the process of being repatriated from places as far apart as South Africa, Mauritius, Tahiti and Kuwait.

Once it has returned, there is nothing to stop exporters - who are not covered by the Government compensation programme - from selling it on, quite legally, for human consumption.

Martin Richardson, of meat exporter First City Trading, said last night: "We have sold 20 to 30 tons over the last six weeks or so." He said there was no way of knowing whether the meat came from cattle aged over 30 months, or whether it had been fed on suspect feed.

But the association's briefing note said it was "highly likely" that a considerable proportion of the repatriated beef stock had been fed on the meat-and-bone meal that had been identified by the Government as the prime suspect of causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle. Use of that meal is now a criminal offence.

The note said: "This stock being available on the open market therefore not only threatens consumer confidence in the UK, but also threatens to undermine the Government's efforts to get the worldwide ban lifted."

Clearly, exporters are citing the BSE loophole as a means of putting pressure on the Government to bring them into the compensation schemes. But they argue that the sale of the meat shows up the arbitrary nature of the Government's BSE programme. As things stand, there is nothing to stop them selling the repatriated beef - which would be banned in Britain if it had been slaughtered on or after 29 March - for human consumption.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture told the Independent last night that there was still no system in place for processing export orders to third countries. "It'll take a few weeks yet," he said. After that, applications would be judged on a country-by-country basis by the European Commission.

Jenny Burt, chairwoman of the International Meat Trade Association, said yesterday: "While the Government proclaimed [the summit in] Florence to be a success, other European nations have suggested it is worthless; that it was a face-saving measure for the British government.

"The position must be made clear. We have identified markets that want our beef. If the European Union drag their heels, the UK government must take unilateral action to ensure trading is resumed.

"If they do not, their policy on non-cooperation in Europe will be exposed as political posturing for domestic consumption rather than a real effort to save this important British industry."

In today's Commons debate, Conservative MP Graham Riddick is expected to urge the Government to take unilateral action to help the exporters if the "fig leaf" agreement on third-country exports hammered out recently in Florence does not live up to the Prime Minister's expectations.