Hogg heads for clash in Brussels

Beef war: Ministers hope that forcing concession over level of cull will placate backbenchers
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The Independent Online
John Major and his Cabinet colleagues yesterday endorsed a low-key collision course with Brussels over the level of the anti-BSE beef cull.

Following a Downing Street ministerial meeting, the Prime Minister's office said that Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, would be going to Brussels on Monday to present new evidence suggesting that the high cull agreed at the June summit in Florence was no longer necessary.

Ministers have no hope, given the hostility of the Germans and the Florence framework agreed by Mr Major, that concessions will be made in the lifting of the ban on British beef sales to Europe.

They therefore believe that they might as well accept those realities, and ease up on the cull programme so that - at the very least - Conservative MPs are kept happy.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said last night that the initial cull figure had been put at 38,000; later extended by up to 42,000 more cattle; with a further addition of 40,000.

Given the fact that no cattle aged over 30 months are allowed into the food chain, Conservative farming interests bitterly resent the additional kill calculations.

The chairman of the Tory backbench agriculture committee, Paul Marland, summed up their mood, warning that Mr Hogg had to be firm.

"For too long the Commission have been ignoring the scientific evidence," he said. "I am sure Douglas Hogg will argue our case forcefully. We want to be pretty firm."

The National Farmers' Union was more cautious. A spokesman said merely that the NFU hoped Britain's European partners could be persuaded to lift the export ban.

That view has been strengthened by recent academic research showing that the disease is anyway being eradicated without the extra slaughter. "The question now," one Whitehall source said, "is why bother?"

Other Whitehall sources said Mr Hogg would be offering that evidence, along with evidence on maternal transmission, to the European Commission on Monday in the vain hope of winning a concession.

Although a bust-up of some kind might be expected, Whitehall sources said there was no question of Mr Hogg spoiling for a row over the matter - in marked contrast to the British policy of non-cooperation that preceded the Florence summit.

Ministers are being careful to emphasise that their prime concern is public health and safety.

They also argue, however, that the threat to the public has already been dealt with and the House of Commons will not vote for further action based on Brussels prejudice, as opposed to scientific evidence.

The Downing Street meeting also agreed further measures to tackle the backlog of the programme under which all cattle over 30 months are being slaughtered.

Up to Tuesday this week, Intervention Board figures show that 477,247 cattle over 30 months had been slaughtered, along with 181,875 calves, as part of the volunteered British cull programme.

Because of a lack of capacity in the rendering industry, many of those carcasses are being held in cold-storage around the country and Roger Freeman, the Cabinet minister who has been given special responsibility for organising disposal of the slaughtered cattle, said last night that two more large grain stores were to be converted to cold storage to provide capacity for a further 25,000 carcasses.

He also said that the ministry was to carry out an urgent survey of 5,000 livestock holdings to make sure that the civil service had "an accurate and up-to-date assessment of the actual size of backlog" of 30-month cattle still awaiting slaughter.