EU rejects Hogg's ploy for exemption from beef ban

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The Independent Online
Hopes that British farmers with healthy, BSE-free herds could be exempted from the EU's beef ban were dashed yesterday after Brussels challenged the basis of proposals framed by the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg.

Mr Hogg submitted a blueprint to Brussels last month detailing how Britain would meet the EU's conditions for the removal of the ban on exports of beef from BSE-free herds.

The Government claimed that the move would open the way for the restoration of trade in quality beef from grass-fed animals which were never exposed to the contaminated feed thought to be the source of the BSE epidemic. But after an initial assessment of the proposals, the EU commissioners for agriculture and food safety, Franz Fischler and Emma Bonino, appear to have knocked on the head any hopes of an early resumption of trade.

In a letter to Mr Hogg the commissioners say that the scheme is too complex and they query the ability of the British authorities to guarantee that certified BSE free herds can be properly traced.

A water-tight system for tracing healthy animals is the linchpin of the certification scheme and the commissioners cast doubt over whether that can be achieved.

Exports from Northern Ireland could be envisaged, the commissioners suggest, since Ulster already has a well-established computerised data base detailing cattle movements from farm to farm, and computer terminals in the abattoirs. "However, in Great Britain the certification of these animals will depend on the declarations made by the farmer and it is hard to see how the relevant information can be given by the keeper of an animal for all movements prior to the time at which he acquired it" says the letter.

The commissioners suggest that the scheme may best apply to "closed" herds, hose which are owned by the same farmer from birth to slaughter, but that would sharply reduce the numbers of farms deriving any benefit.

The Ministry of Agriculture is in the process of setting up a computerised system for monitoring all cattle movements but the letter says records would only be reliable for animals born after this date. Further inspections to ensure that the selective slaughter of high-risk animals has been implemented will also be required the letter adds.

A commission spokesman stressed yesterday that a formal decision on the certified herds scheme would be taken only at the end of next month, when the EU's scientific veterinary committee has delivered a verdict.

He said the letter contained only "initial comments" as part of a continuing correspondence with Mr Hogg.

In another setback on BSE, Brussels is likely to re-impose a ban on British exports of gelatin by the end of this month because safety standards have still not been met.