Cunningham cuts up rough with EU over meat controls

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Britain will unilaterally ban the sale of Continental beef which has not been subjected to the stringent health and hygiene controls in force in UK abattoirs, the agriculture minister, Jack Cunningham, told his EU colleagues last night. Katherine Butler reports from Brussels.

In a furious outburst, the minister accused other European governments of "prevaricating, obfuscating and delaying" because they did not want to enforce a Europe-wide ban on offal, brain and other animal parts thought to carry the highest concentration of BSE infectivity.

He dismissed as "completely fraudulent" arguments from some member-states such as Germany or Austria, which claim not to need additional precautions because BSE is unknown in their herds.

Mr Cunningham announced his move in Brussels after the 14 other EU governments represented on the Standing Veterinary Committee outvoted Britain to put off for three months a Europe-wide extension of British-style rules reluctantly agreed last July.

"I am not prepared to delay this or to countenance any further delay," said Mr Cunningham, adding that "beef can come in to the country as long as it has been subjected to the same stringent safeguards as required in Britain".

Europe's delay in banning risk material follows protests from the United States over trade in beef by-products, including gelatine used in pharmaceutical drugs, but also to allow more time for research into the potential health risk from lamb, which independent scientists warned about last week.

Eight of the fifteen member-states also claim their herds are BSE-free and that the measures are therefore superfluous but Mr Cunningham rejected this argument as irrelevant in a single European market.

He said there was no guarantee that meat wholesaled in one member-state had not in fact come from a neighbouring country's herd. "My first loyalties and duties lie with safeguarding the health of the British people," Mr Cunningham said, adding that penalties for breach of the rules would be "significant". Mr Cunningham said he was unconcerned by whether or not his unilateral measure is legal under EU rules. "I am not going to get into prevaricating discussions with them; I am just going to do it."

The practical impact of the ban is likely to be limited, raising suspicions in Brussels that on a day when British farmers took to the streets of London, it is aimed more at diverting public criticism from the Government, back to Europe. Much of the beef exported to the UK comes from Ireland and Mr Cunningham acknowledged that risk material is removed there under regulations in force since last February. The French too have gone ahead with the removal of specified risk material.

Dutch and German suppliers, however, would be hit if British supermarkets cancelled contracts because of the new requirements.

Mr Cunningham's department made clear the measure did not amount to a trade ban in the strict sense, because meat could be imported into the UK as long as the offending matter was removed. But in practice this would heap costs on Continental suppliers, as they would have to upgrade abattoirs to meet the British standards.

Mr Cunningham also accused farm leaders of conveying the wrong impression about the prospect of an early relaxation of the ban on British beef. Dampening expectations for any breakthrough when the European Commission meets today, he said the NFU "may have knowingly or unknowingly" misconstrued the outcome of talks with EU commissioner Emma Bonino last week.

He was still "perfectly content" to allow lamb on the bone to continue to be sold. Scientists advising the Government on BSE have advised additional precautions for meat from sheep older than 12 months.