Germany refuses to lift beef blockade

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GERMANY IS on a collision course with the European Commission after refusing to lift its ban on the sale of British beef. The German Health Minister, Andrea Fischer, said her government believed it was too early to lift the ban and further talks would be held with Commission representatives .

Germany wants guarantees that all British beef exports are properly tested, to ensure that none is affected by BSE. Ms Fischer, a member of the Green party, pointed out that BSE has not been fully eradicated from the British herd, with 1,500 new cases detected in the first half of this year alone.

But last night the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said new regulations made British beef the safest in the world. A spokesman said: "We are aware that the Germans have requested further talks so that they can move forward to lift the ban while continuing to protect the health and interests of German consumers.

"We welcome their willingness to talk about it. We never expected any of our European partners to overturn the bans in their countries in August. We also knew that some would take longer than others and that the Germans had concerns. They did vote against the lifting of the ban and we've never made an issue of that."

While Germany has not been a significant market for British beef, officials will not want any countries still voicing doubts about the product's safety. The Meat and Livestock Commission, which promotes British beef exports, said it believed German opinion would eventually come round. Terry Lee, the commission's head of export marketing, said: "We suspect that when other countries start buying British beef, so will the Germans."

The shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe, said: "If these reports are proved to be true, the Germans are clearly acting in direct conflict with an EU-wide decision to lift the export ban on British beef."

There had been signs even before yesterday's announcement that Germany was looking for ways to stall on the decision to lift the ban. It earlier claimed a need to have the new regime approved by its parliament's upper chamber, the Bundesrat, which does not meet until 24 September.

The delay now looks likely to be much longer, with discussions in Brussels due to begin in October. However, if Berlincontinues to resist, it is liable to face court proceedings.

"If the conditions are fulfilled [by the British], the Germans would have to allow the meat in," said a commission spokeswoman, Martine Reicherts. "If they don't, we will study starting an infringement procedure." The latter is the first step in a process that can result in an EU member state being tried in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Observers assume that the German government will not let matters go that far.

Although regional governments, especially those where the Greens hold the environment portfolio, continue to resist British beef, the final decision rests with the federal government.