Election '97: New EC ban on beef products is blow for Major

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The Independent Online
The European Commission is to tighten the blockade against British beef by reimposing a ban on gelatine.

The move, expected to be tabled at a Commission meeting tomorrow, will embarrass John Major, who hailed the lifting of the ban almost a year ago as a "victory".

To date, the only success for the Government in its efforts to lift the ban has been the easing of restrictions on the export of beef products, gelatine and semen. Gelatine is used in a wide range of food products and in many cosmetics.

Now even this small success looks likely to be reversed with the reimposition of the gelatine ban. However, several member states, led by Germany, were opposed to any easing of the ban. Emma Bonino, the Consumer Affairs Commissioner, now firmly believes there is cause to fear that gelatine could be contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, is expected to support the move when he presents a new paper on further measures to combat BSE in the European Union.

The worldwide ban on British beef and beef products was imposed in March last year, provoking Mr Major's fury.

The Prime Minister rejected his partners' claims that the widespread presence of BSE in British beef meant a ban was necessary to protect public health, proposing instead to fight the ban with a policy of "non-co-operation."

However, far from securing a lifting of the ban, the ploy angered other European leaders, souring relations on several fronts and undermining Britain's position in the crucial talks on European reform, which will rewrite the Maastricht Treaty.

At key stages of the campaign, Britain found the Commission to be an ally. At first it supported the lifting of the gelatine and semen ban, based on the evidence then available.

Now Brussels is taking a tougher line. Officials are disappointed by the Government's failure to take adequate measures to eradicate BSE in cattle and to ensure that products such as gelatine are protected.

Action has already been taken to prevent British gelatine exporters using infected British beef, and Commission officials say consumers on the Continent can rest assured that no infected British gelatine is circulating.

However, the Commission is expected to propose that only a political decision to reimpose the blanket ban will be totally failsafe.

The beef ban has cost every household in Britain pounds 160 - the equivalent of two pence on income tax - Labour claimed yesterday. In an attack on the Government's handling of the crisis, the party said it had cost at least pounds 520m in exports. Consumption of beef at home had dropped by 363,000 tonnes between 1995 and 1996 and 28,500 jobs had been threatened.

Labour's food, agriculture and rural affairs spokesman, Gavin Strang, said he had still not had answers on where cattle with BSE had been buried in the early years of the crisis.

The Government had decided not to send the agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg to a Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday. Instead, it had sent Lord Lindsay, a Scottish junior agriculture minister.