BSE scare: Where do British farmers stand now?

What is happening to the British beef industry? James Cusick and Paul Field offer answers to key questions
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What is happening to beef sales in Britain at the moment?

The news is relatively good for the industry in the shops and supermarkets. At the height of the scare, sales fell by 50 per cent. However, some of the leading supermarkets now say sales are back to 80 per cent of what they were prior to the Government announcement on 20 March. For steak lovers, all doubt seems to have gone. Sales are almost back to normal.

So who is selling beef?

Everyone is. In fact Asda, the supermarket chain, seems so confident about its beef sales that it announced yesterday that foreign beef would no longer appear on its shelves. Asda says its beef sales are 90 per cent of what they once were. Sainsbury, which says it never stocked foreign beef, added that beef sales are back to 80 per cent of what they were.

How many cattle have we killed?

There is confusion over this figure. Essentially we have started to kill cattle, and set targets for the numbers we want to see killed each week. The problem is the two figures do not quite match up yet. That means we have already got a huge backlog in the number of cattle to be slaughtered. Ministers want to see 22,000 cattle killed each week. But between May 3 and 13 only 11,190 were killed. The backlog on farms is estimated to be 120,000.

What kind of cattle are they?

The plan is to kill each week about 15,000 dairy cows at the end of their productive life. This means they will be removed from the food chain. The slaughter plan also includes the removal of several hundred thousand prime beef cattle over 30 months old.

Why have the Europeans been so slow in lifting any part the ban?

The basic problem is that their own beef sales have also been hit and they want to see the British put in place a package of measures that will restore consumer confidence not just in Britain, but throughout the European Union. The United Kingdom government has said the ban is "unjustified and disproportionate". But the Foreign Office is now hopeful. In its best diplomatic tones it said yesterday that a "considerable step forward" had been made.

What more do we need to do to change their minds?

That depends on what "considerable step forward" means. The Europeans seem pleased with the selective cull plans. A partial lifting of the overall ban, would bring a lifting of the full ban just that bit closer. Britain's chief veterinary officer, Keith Meldrum, said the Government was close to presenting its targeted slaughtered programme to cull 42,000 cattle per week. Clearly the authorities here believe that should be enough to restore continental confidence. The complete removal of bonemeal in all animal feed - which is still concerning the EU - would give further momentum to the case for lifting the ban.

Are we winning the argument then?

Yes and no. Clearly there is still some reluctance from our EU partners to simply lift the entire beef ban. But the Foreign Office, Malcolm Rifkind, thinks we've got former critics now on "our side". Yesterday Mr Rifkind said "a substantial number of countries were now supporting the UK; the [European] Commission is on side, France is on side". Who was "off side" was not commented on.

What is the estimated total cost to date to the British food industry?

A lot, and it will probably end up costing a lot more. Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, has said that the Government has committed pounds 1bn to support farmers, renderers, abattoirs and other plants. But compensation to other groups, like hauliers and retailers, has been ruled out of what Mr Hogg called "a beastly business".

The legal fall-out from the beastly business could mean good business for lawyers in compensation claims that could push this total higher.

The beef export industry, worth an annual pounds 520m, came to a standstill at the end of March. Exporters alone are thought to be losing pounds 10m a week. The International Meat Trade Association estimates it has pounds 23m of unsaleable beef in storage at the moment.

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