In the wake of McDonald's decision last week to put British beef back on the menu, Manuel Medina Ortega, the Spanish Euro-MP responsible for reporting to the European Parliament on BSE, predicted that the ban could be lifted in "a very short time."
The MEP, who has been visiting farmers in Britain, said the situation had "improved considerably". The level of cases of mad cow disease expected this year had been around 5,000 but in 1997 there would be a maximum of 1,500 "which means that the system is really working". BSE might die out within a year, he said.
Asked how long it might be before British beef was accepted for export, Mr Ortega said: "I think it is a matter of a very short time ... The way it looks, within a year or so we may get rid of any cases of BSE."
The final decision will be up to the European Commission, and Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham has been keen to play down expectations of a rapid change of policy.
But Mr Ortega said that the system of controls was going to make European beef "probably the safest in the world". He attacked a decision to cut the level of compensation to farmers as "a bad one". The European Commission's beef management committee has agreed to a proposal by officials that the compensation rate for cows over 30 months be reduced from 65p a kilogramme to 58p a kilogramme.
Britain has criticised the scale of compensation, which has proved so attractive to farmers that 1.5 million cattle have now been slaughtered in the UK, compared with estimates of around 400,000. The likely cost of the beef cull has soared to around pounds 4.2 billion, and Chancellor Gordon Brown backed moves to reduce the payments to farmers. However, Mr Ortega said: "I hope that farmers will be fully compensated. One of the good results we have achieved is people are getting full compensation, so farmers were interested in detecting the illness."