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Germany `ready to lift ban on British beef'

HOPES THAT Germany will soon lift its ban on British beef were raised last night when Brussels said it had been given a "positive" response to its demand that Berlin removes the embargo on UK produce.

A letter sent to the European Commission yesterday was deemed sufficiently encouraging for Brussels to say that it will not take legal action against Germany next week.

Berlin was responding to a letter sent by David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection, demanding to know what steps the Germans are taking to lift the ban.

A commission spokesman said: "This is an interesting letter and a rather positive development. We will study it in detail and we do not envisage sending a warning letter [the first stage of legal action] next week".

Germany and France are the only EU countries still refusing to permit the sale of British beef in the shops.

But unlike the French blockade, Germany's trade ban is driven by constitutional problems and the independent powers of its 16 regions, the Lander, which have constitutional powers over food-safety legislation. The German Health Minister, Andrea Fischer, has been quoted as saying that the process of allowing imports of British beef is likely to take a further two months.

The breakthrough came as the French Food Safety Agency began a meeting in Paris to reconsider its drastic decision earlier this year that British beef remained a health risk despite top-level assurances about its safety from EU scientific experts.

The agency is expected to announce its verdict next week - with Mr Byrne on stand-by to decide whether to pursue legal proceedings against France.

Last night Mr Byrne, in Seattle for the concluding days of the World Trade Organisation summit, made no comment about the French situation, but said the German letter was "positive". He said it was now unlikely that Brussels would launch infringement proceedings against Berlin while a lifting of the ban seemed closer.

A British official said: "This sounds helpful but we would have to wait until the European Commission shares with us this information."