Food: Europe offers export hope to Ulster beef farmers

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The first UK-bred beef could be back on sale in Europe by Easter after a partial lifting yesterday of the two-year trade ban. Katherine Butler, in Strasbourg, says the European Commission agreed to ask member governments to allow beef exports from Northern Ireland.

The Commission's unanimous support for a scheme to admit exports from what will be known as "certified BSE-free herds" in Northern Ireland can be viewed as the first step on the way back to normal trade.

Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, welcomed the development but cautioned that it amounted to clearing just the first of many hurdles.

Only two governments, Ireland and Holland, already back the case for lifting the ban on Northern Irish beef, so convincing a majority to vote in favour will be a huge hurdle in the face of hardline German resistance.

The next barrier will be referral on 21 January to member-state representatives on the EU's Standing Veterinary Committee. Under the bloc's arcane voting rules this Committee could lift the ban on Northern Irish exports if a qualified majority agrees.

This is unlikely, however, so the Commission expects to have to refer it to the Council of EU agriculture ministers where the German government is expected to do all it can to muster a majority against. One tactic might be to link agreement to demands that German should be declared a "BSE-free zone" but the EU agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, yesterday warned the Germans against politicising a matter which should be decided on scientific grounds. "There is clear hope now. If we are successful with this first step then I am personally convinced the next steps will follow," he said.

For Ulster farmers, who have been lobbying for months for special treatment, set apart from the rest of UK farmers, yesterday's decision comes as vindication of the argument that their herds are grass-fed and have been afflicted by a very low incidence of BSE. But the key factor was the existence in Ulster of a 10-year-old computerised cattle-tracing system, unique in Europe. This will allow farmers there to identify those animals and herds which have never been afflicted by BSE. Around 85 per cent of farmers in Northern Ireland are involved in cattle rearing and beef production, an industry which generates more than 20,000 full-time jobs.

But they will have to comply with tough conditions even if the proposal goes through. Exports would be allowed only for deboned meat from cattle aged between 6 months and 30 months which comes from herds free of BSE for at least eight years and slaughtered and processed on approved premises. As one of the conditions, the EU food safety commissioner, Emma Bonino, ruled out any exports from Northern Ireland which pass through British meat factories.