BSE was EU's worst crisis

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The Independent Online
The crisis triggered by "mad-cow disease", or BSE, in Britain was the worst in the European Union's history, Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, said.

He again rejected British attempts to renege on a deal to slaughter 140,000 high-risk cattle. Britain said he was effectively blocking efforts to revive the European beef industry.

Mr Fischler was speaking in Killarney, in the Republic of Ireland, where agriculture ministers today tackle long-term problems facing the beef sector.

Douglas Hogg the Agriculture Minister, yesterday defended the decision to abandon the selective slaughter of 140,000 high-risk cattle, the centrepiece of the BSE eradication strategy demanded by Britain's EU partners. Mr Hogg said no cull policy could accelerate greatly the eradication date for the disease.

But anger in other member-states of Britain's handling of the crisis has reached boiling- point following the slaughter decision. Britain's critics believe they have little hope of reviving demand for beef, which in some countries is down by 40 per cent, until the disease is wiped out.

Yesterday Mr Hogg joined his European colleagues on a visit to a Co Kerry farm. Playing down the tension, he said: "Relations with the other member- states are excellent. Our work goes on." This was not borne out by the French minister, Philippe Vasseur, who said: "Britain appears to be isolating herself."

Europe's farmers are growing more militant in their demands for action. As the ministers sit down today, 10,000 Irish beef producers will converge on Killarney to protest at the collapse in prices. Their difficulties have been created mainly by a panic reaction to British BSE in key Irish markets in the Middle East.

A paper prepared by Ivan Yates, the Irish minister, who is hosting the talks, says thousands of farmers will have to quit beef production permanently.

France is pressing for an EU farm-budget surplus of pounds 800m to be spent on taking even more unwanted cattle off the market. The present stockpile limit of 400,000 tonnes is close to exhaustion and fresh funds will have to be found before the ceiling can be raised. To boost consumer confidence, ministers are also expected to endorse the introduction of a new beef- labelling system.

It would carry information on the country and region of birth of the animal as well as the type of feed used.