Germans want extra safety tests on UK beef ban on beef may last all year

BRITISH BEEF may be banned from Germany until next year, on the orders of the all-powerful regional governments which earlier this week forced the national Health Minister to defy European Union rules.

Although Germany imported very little beef from Britain before the ban was imposed three years ago, a further delay would deal a severe blow to UK farmers because German stalling tactics are likely to be copied by other European countries. France's Farm minister, Jean Glavany, has already announced that Paris needed a month to sort out the new regulations.

Germany is looking at a longer time-span. A decision to lift the EU-wide ban on beef has to be approved by parliament's upper chamber, the Bundesrat, where the 16 Lander are represented. This body is currently on the move from Bonn to Berlin, and is not due to meet until 24 September.

Even when it does, the odds are stacked against the British beef industry. At a meeting on Tuesday between regional health ministers and Andrea Fischer, the federal Health Minister, it became clear that the Lander were against allowing British beef into their shops.

"There was a feeling that this decision by the European Commission came too soon," an official of Saxony's Health Ministry said.

"The majority of the Lander were opposed to lifting the ban."

Ms Fischer herself cannot start negotiations with Brussels until the new Commission is in place in October.

She wants added guarantees of safety, and insists on the testing of all British beef bound for export. This is already technically feasible, but the British authorities have so far refused to sanction the tests.

Such measures, Ms Fischer told the BBC yesterday, would benefit Britain, too, because they would boost confidence in a product that most Europeans continue to mistrust. "I think it's easier for the German authorities to explain to the people in Germany that British beef is now safe again if we have taken this second chance," she explained.

Ms Fischer is not politically disposed towards helping British agriculture. She belongs to the Greens, the party which spearheaded the campaign against British beef at the outset of the BSE crisis. Long before the European Union took its drastic decision, Green health ministers in the regions had already imposed unilateral bans.

At that time, they were strongly condemned by the Christian Democrat- led federal government, but such ideological rifts have since healed. The Christian Democrats were the first to applaud Ms Fischer's defiant stance. "Protecting citizens' health has a higher priority than free trade," the Christian Democrat spokesman, Peter Hintze, declared.

Consumers, though, have shown little indication that they care. The BSE crisis is long forgotten in Germany, the memories obliterated by more recent health cares.

Nevertheless, the regions continue to insist that "suspect" British beef be labelled as British. The new EU regulations on such labelling does not come into effect, however, until next January. Until then, an impasse looms.