Germany the key to lifting BSE embargo

Britain has secured the first breakthrough in its bid to dismantle the EU beef ban after EU scientists meeting in Brussels yesterday recommended a partial easing of the embargo for Northern Ireland. Katherine Butler reports from Brussels.
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The Independent Online
Independent scientists on the influential Scientific Veterinary Committee advised relaxing the ban for meat from grass-fed animals which have never come into contact with BSE and whose movements from farm to farm can be reliably traced.

The European Commission is now expected to propose an easing of the ban for beef from Northern Ireland, the only region which has the computerised records of cattle movements which scientists insist are essential before cows can be certified BSE-free. But approval or rejection for even this step lies with EU governments, represented by the separate Standing Veterinary Committee, where chief veterinary officers from each member- state sits. Germany, which has been most vociferous in opposing any easing of the trade ban, can be expected to try to influence a ruling against Britain when it comes to a vote.

Yesterday's opinion backed Northern Irish farmers' claims that they alone have an adequate computerised system for tracking cattle movements in place. But the scientists offered little new hope on prospects for an early easing of the ban for farmers in England, Scotland or Wales. "The major stumbling-block appears to be the lack of a comprehensive computerised movement and tracing system and associated data base in Great Britain," they concluded.

Northern Ireland, which has the lowest incidence of BSE in the UK, has had computerised cattle records for nine years. By contrast, a nationwide tracing database to be sited in the North-west will only become operational in March.

The Government must now decide whether a regional carve-up is even politically acceptable, given pressure from Scottish farmers, fearful of losing export markets to Ulster, to insist on an "all-or- nothing" approach. The Conservatives repeatedly refused to consider a region-by- region strategy to ending the ban and last night government officials would only say that the committee's opinion would be "carefully considered".

Animals eligible for certification as BSE-free would be limited to those still in the herds where they were born or for which records of every movement since birth are available, according to the recommendation. And exports would be allowed only for meat, not live cattle.

Last night the Ulster Farmers Union called for clarification of all the conditions laid down by the scientists which cover such things as health standards for farms.