The prospect of a Brussels-imposed ban looked more likely last night after the European Commission endorsed the decision of 10 EU member-states to close their borders to meat and live-cattle exports from Britain. Germany, Italy and Austria joined France, Belgium, Portugal, Finland, Greece, Sweden and the Netherlands in unilateral bans. Brushing aside claims that it was illegal to ban trade with Britain, the Commission said governments could invoke the EU treaty to keep out disease. "Member-states have the legal right to take safeguard action either on human animal or even plant health grounds if they feel there is a threat" said a spokesman. Suspension of trade is, however, temporary pending a decision on what joint EU measures should follow.
Banning British beef was furthermore "completely understandable" in light of Britain's admission that 10 victims of CJD may have contracted the fatal brain condition through eating beef.
"This goes beyond a question of what you can or can't do in legal terms. Clearly we are confronted with a serious public-health problem," the spokesman added.
The Commission will only decide what action must be taken to allay public concerns after it receives the advice of veterinary officers representing the 15 member-states scheduled to meet in Brussels on Monday. But independent scientific advisers to the Commission who gathered yesterday to review the latest evidence were expected to endorse the British findings pointing to a probable link between beef and CJD.
It was not clear last night to what extent an EU ban on British beef exports would affect meat on sale in British supermarkets or butcher shops. Butchering, slaughterhouse regulations or other EU curbs already in place to minimise the BSE risk clearly apply in Britain as well as elsewhere. It is unlikely, however, that the Commission could either legally or politically direct Britain to withdraw beef from British shops on public-health or consumer-protection grounds.
Commission officials were also reluctant to be drawn on whether Brussels would order Britain to destroy its entire herd. The Commission, which manages agricultural policy for the 15 states, has in the past operated an EU-funded slaughter policy to contain outbreaks of classical swine fever in Germany and Belgium.
But there are neither funds available to finance the destruction of 11 million cattle in Britain nor a clear opinion that it would be the best option.
One source suggested the Commission would want much more than circumstantial evidence of a link between BSE and CJD before ordering a slaughter-out policy.
With the EU facing an unprecedented crisis on the overall beef market, the focus was turning yesterday to how to deal with a glut of unwanted meat and the prospect of prices in free-fall.Reuse content