Early end to beef ban in jeopardy

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The Independent Online
Jack Cunningham, the Minister for Agriculture, flew to Brussels last night for urgent talks with the European Commission after EU veterinary inspectors raised obstacles to an early ending of the ban on British beef.

In an unpublished report to the consumer affairs commissioner, Emma Bonino, they raise doubts about the safety of controls in Northern Ireland, where the incidence of mad cow disease is extremely low and where cattle tracing systems have been in place for eight years.

The findings, which were passed on to the Government at the weekend, make it all the more unlikely that a majority of EU governments would back even a partial lifting of the embargo for cattle which can be certified free of BSE.

This comes as a severe blow to Ulster's farmers, whose export dependent industry has been decimated by the beef ban and who had been optimistic that at least some meat would be back on Continental shelves by Christmas.

Under a government proposal to ease the ban on meat from BSE-free herds Northern Ireland had hoped to benefit first because of the low incidence of BSE in the province but crucially because the movements of cows between herds can be reliably traced thanks to a unique data base which will only be replicated in the rest of the UK by next March.

But following visits to Ulster two weeks ago the inspectors have said they are not fully satisfied with the cattle registration system. In talks with Ms Bonino last night, Mr Cunningham sought clarification on whether the Commission will now be requiring further changes on the ground before it can recommend a resumption of exports.

According to Brussels officials the doubts raised by the inspectors centre on the failure of the Northern Ireland authorities to apply the cattle database scheme fully to animals designated for the home market.

She and the farm commissioner Franz Fischler must now decide whether to demand tighter controls from Ulster before a meeting of the powerful EU standing veterinary committee which meets next Tuesday and Wednesday.

The committee is due to issue its recommendation on the certified herds scheme. Checking on the implementation of controls will slow down the decision even in the unlikely event that enough governments were prepared to back a partial relaxation of the ban.