EU set to confirm ban on exports

BSE crisis: Commission decision reached in atmosphere of intense confusion and with little scientific backing
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The Independent Online
SARAH HELM

Brussels

The European Commission will today attempt to halt the crisis over British beef by confirming an unprecedented total ban on British beef exports to the EU and the rest of the world. In the face of fierce British protests the Commission argues that it has no choice but to impose the ban in order to maintain confidence in the EU beef market.

However, the Commission decision has been taken in an atmosphere of intense confusion in Brussels, with little clear legal or scientific basis. The Commission has come under intense pressure to take a firm lead, and blame Britain for giving it no warning of the alarm, and therefore little time to preempt the crisis. While Britain has accused the European Commission of taking unjustified action by imposing a ban, the Commission argues that the ban is the minimum necessary to contain the problem.

At one point during the discussions it is understood that Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, canvassed the idea of banning the marketing of British beef throughout the EU, including Britain. A marketing ban would have been far more serious than an export ban, leading to the immediate removal of all beef products of Europe's shelves.

The Commission has an obligation under the EU treaties to protect the health and safety of all consumers, and questions have been raised about whether Brussels should not take action to protect British consumers too. However, this proposal was swiftly set aside in view of the political storm it would cause. The sense of confusion in Brussels intensified yesterday when even the export ban, first announced by Mr Fischler on Monday evening, following advice from the EU's veterinary committee, was apparently put on hold. Commission sources said the ban was blocked at the last minute after Neil Kinnock and Leon Brittan, the two British commissioners, refused to endorse it. However, other officials denied this, saying Jacques Santer, the Commission President, had delayed a decision following a telephone call from John Major urging the Commission to look again at the evidence. A second meeting of EU veterinary experts yesterday endorsed Monday's ruling to impose and export ban.

The last-minute doubts, however, about whether to go ahead with the ban will only further undermine public confidence in the handling of the crisis.

Questions were also being asked in Brussels yesterday about the wide scope of the ban, agreed by the EU veterinary committee. Some senior EU vets suggested the all-inclusive nature of the ban was political and not taken for scientific reasons. The decision was taken to draw the ban as broadly as possible by blocking export of all beef, beef products and beef-related products.

However, in the hurry to produce a proposal no clear list was drawn up, leading to fears that a big range of British food and pharmaceutical products could be barred from export. Senior EU vets said yesterday that there was no need to ban certain beef-related products, such as gelatine, and these should be clearly eliminated from the ban.

There was also deep uncertainty yesterday about whether the Commission has the power to impose a ban on British beef exports to the non EU countries.

British plea for boycott exemptions is rejected

Europe's chief veterinary officers last night rejected Britain's request that "beef related products" should be excluded from the world-wide boycott, writes Katherine Butler in Brussels. Up to last night European Commission officials were refusing to release an exhaustive list of the products which would be hit but said they intended the ban to be "all-embracing". Obvious victims would be stock cubes, soup mixes, beef flavoured spreads, prepared dishes containing beef flavouring, gravy granules made from beef essence etc. But foods containing gelatine or other binding agents sometimes made from beef extract include jellies, yoghurts, ice-creams, sorbets, fruit gums and biscuits. The ban extends to pharmaceutical products such as vitamin or other drug capsules. Cosmetics potentially containing beef extract include lipstick, various emulsions and creams and some shampoos.

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