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French win new inquiry on safety of British beef

BRITAIN unexpectedly agreed last night to a wide-ranging scientific study of the safety of its beef exports in what will be seen as a big concession to France.

The move inevitably means further delay for the return of British beef to the French market. The plan was agreed after three hours of talks in Brussels yesterday. Experts from Britain, France and the European Commission will start work on Friday, discussing the central elements of the British beef export scheme.

The move was announced in a joint statement with the French farming minister, Jean Glavany, and Dominique Gillot, the health minister. Mr Glavany declined to give any commitment that the French ban, ruled illegal by the European Commission, would be lifted.

The announcement will come as a surprise to British farmers after last week's clean bill of health from European Union scientists for British beef. Now the scientists will begin to study five areas of concern raised by France. The Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, stressed that the United Kingdom had not yet made any concession, adding: "These are technical issues. It seems to me fair to explore them. We are talking about days and not a lengthy process."

The joint statement said: "We have drawn up a method to emerge from crisis as quickly as possible by identifying five points - traceability, testing, derived products, controls and labelling - worthy of being looked at by our experts over the next few days. We undertake this approach in a constructive spirit and a common will to assure the public health of our citizens."

A Downing Street spokeswoman said last night: "It's not a question of renegotiating the date-based export scheme. That is non-negotiable. British beef is the safest in Europe and we hope to see it being sold in France as soon as possible."

It was the first face-to-face meeting between the British and French agriculture ministers since the start of the dispute between the two countries. While a negotiated settlement was expected, few predicted the extent of the concessions to which Mr Brown agreed.

The meeting came after a series of discussions with the European commissioner for health and consumer safety, David Byrne, who shuttled between the two ministers.

Earlier yesterday a government spokesman denied that further scrutiny of British beef after the clean bill of health delivered last Friday amounted to a climbdown. He said: "This has been progress. We have had useful discussions. We said that we came to Brussels in an open and constructive frame of mind. We have been asked to provide some technical clarifications in a number of areas."

Brussels is sensitive to fears that France may employ delaying tactics, particularly amid the difficulty that Germany is likely to have in pushing legal measures to lift the ban through the Bundesrat. Eight of the 16 regional governments in Germany have indicated that they may try to block legal moves to lift the embargo.

The move was seen as a concession to Paris, just days after scientists comprehensively rejected French claims that beef from the UK is still a health risk. Tim Yeo, the Tory agriculture spokesman, said: "There will be massive dismay at the suggestion that even more conditions must be applied to British beef before it can be sold in France. Yet again, Labour is caving in to these totally unjustified demands from France."

The Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman, Colin Breed, said: "It's deeply disappointing that the minister has not agreed that he should hold firm, bearing in mind the unanimous decision of the original scientific committee.

"If this is a means of providing the French with a face-saving way out and that ultimately the beef ban is going to be lifted in the next few days following some spurious investigation, that may be better than going to court. But it does bring into question the EU's degree of influence over this whole matter."