EU ruling new blow for British beef sales

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Sales of British beef in Europe appeared last night to be doomed permanently following agreement on new EU rules forcing all beef to be marked with its country of origin.

Government efforts to fight the controversial scheme amid fears it could undermine attempts to revive exports after the EU trade embargo is lifted, were overruled at a meeting of European agricultural ministers. The move comes in a bid to restore consumer confidence in beef, still shaken a year to the day after Stephen Dorrill's House of Commons statement linking BSE and CJD triggered a worldwide health scare. Agreement on the labelling rules came after a three-day debate which saw Britain lose the battle against the first return to national food promotions in the 40-year existence of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The only concession was that British consumers will not have to be told where the meat they buy originates from. This, the Government had argued, would place an unrealistic burden on retailers and producers.

Mandatory identification of the country of origin of beef on sale in shops will come into force from 1 January, 2000, according to the deal agreed yesterday. Britain will be free to omit labels on meat sold domestically or abroad provided the country of export is also opting out of the scheme. In practice, only Italy is expected to opt out.

Before 2000, member states can bring in labelling on a voluntary basis for beef produced and marketed at home. This, for example, will allow the French immediately to legalise the "Viande Francaise" stickers on French beef which have provoked anger from neighbouring countries which claim they are a form of trade discrimination.

It seems clear that if, as expected, other EU countries mark the origin of their beef, then any British beef which finds it way into supermarkets in Europe will also be readily identifiable merely by the absence of a sticker.

The European Commission had also voiced reluctance about the scheme which flies in the face of the principles of the single market, but condemnation of its handling of food safety led to a change of heart. "Consumers want more information. They now want to know how meat is produced," said a spokesman.

People who eat sheep's liver or kidneys more than once a week could be at risk of poison-ing by cadmium, a heavy metal found in sewage sludge, according to new research commissioned by the Government.

Preliminary results of the work, published in today's New Scientist, commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), found that the livers of sheep which had grazed on land fertilised with sewage sludge had levels of cadmium eight times higher than sheep grazing on clean pasture. The concentration of cadmium in their kidneys was six times higher.

The finding also presents problems for water companies, which, after 1998, will probably face a European ban on the dumping of sewage sludge in the sea, and are expected to try to increase its use as fertiliser. A third of the 30 million tonnes of sewage sludge produced each year in Britain is dumped into the sea, a third is incinerated or buried in landfill sites, and a third is given to farmers.

Cadmium is introduced into sewage through industrial pro- cesses such as electroplating. In humans, it causes kidney and liver damage and affects the operation of the red blood cells.