France has ordered the immediate withdrawal from sale of offal from cows born before August 1991, a measure that for the first time casts doubt on the soundness of its beef cattle. The ban, which covers the spinal cord, brain and sweetbread but not liver or kidneys, was contained in a statement by the Agriculture Ministry and cited advice from World Health Organisation specialists after their meeting in Geneva this week.
The ban reportedly reflects the slight possibility that French cows born before 1991 might have been given British feed containing parts from infected animals. Commentators say this is one interpretation of the WHO advice and the most conservative. Another would be that the animal parts specified may transmit the infection from one generation to the next and that all offal of this type should be withdrawn until the infection is eliminated.
Even the more conservative interpretation infuriated French specialist offal wholesalers and butchers, whose trade was already suffering from the pan-European BSE scare. They said most offal sold in France was from much younger animals and expressed fears that all of it would now be shunned.
The beef market has slumped disastrously in the past week and consumers have been thoroughly confused by mixed signals from the authorities. On one hand, France was the first to ban British beef imports and distinguished between French and British farming methods and sanitation. On the other, two beef herds in Brittany were slaughtered within days of the "mad-cow" crisis breaking because two cows were found to have BSE, and now certain types of offal have been banned.
Meanwhile, the threat of a British anti-EU backlash over its beef ban grew after Klaus Kinkel, Germany's Foreign Minister, said the pounds 500m-a- year compensation for farmers hit by the BSE scare would have to be paid out of Britain's European rebate. The Treasury could thus lose pounds 3bn over the six years the culling programme is to run, leaving Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, with a hole in his finances for his tax-cutting Budget in autumn.
Britain has paid reduced EU contributions since 1992 and compensation for the crisis would be offset against the rebate, Mr Kinkel said yesterday. "That is what agreements on contributions say: all payments by the Community which would further reduce the British net contribution have to be taken into account."
Yesterday Sir James Spicer, Tory MP for Dorset West, said McDonald's, Wimpey and Burger King outlets should be picketed for using imported beef. Farmers condemned the burger chains for switching after taking out advertisements to say British beef was safe.
Sir James said he would be happy to picket McDonald's himself, and criticised the Consumers' Association for warning of the "unquantifiable risk" of eating British beef.
Signs are growing that consumers are regaining confidence in British beef as stores reported increased sales despite the end of last week's special offers. But some retailers reported a shortage because of the slowdown in slaughtering.
Sales began to recover last weekend as supermarkets cut prices, led by Sainsbury's, which introduced a half-price offer.
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