Hogg urged to honour BSE cull

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Britain can forget about ending the worldwide ban on its beef if it reneges on a deal with its European Union partners to slaughter over 140,000 cows at risk of developing BSE, the farm minister, Douglas Hogg, was warned yesterday.

The rebuff to government plans to abandon the accelerated cattle cull was delivered in strident terms by the Irish EU presidency even before Europe's 15 agriculture ministers sat down to discuss the matter.

After a one-to-one discussion with Mr Hogg, the Irish farm minister, Ivan Yates, who is chairing the two-day meeting, said he had warned Britain against going back on a deal struck in Florence last June which committed it to a sweeping BSE eradication programme in exchange for a step -by- step lifting of the beef export ban.

"The Florence agreement is the only workable solution. To depart from that would only make a bad situation virtually impossible. The accelerated cull is an integral part of what was agreed at Florence. To fail to honour that aspect would be to fail to honour the entire agreement with obvious consequences," Mr Yates said.

Echoing him, the European Commission President, Jacques Santer, said: "We don't need headlines every fortnight. We need to stick to agreements we've already reached".

Armed with a new scientific study showing that BSE will die out by the year 2001 regardless of the slaughter programme, Mr Hogg prepared yesterday to urge colleagues to review their demands. He was careful to avoid framing a clear proposal for a cut in slaughter numbers but told reporters: "There is no cull policy which anybody remotely suggests should be adopted which will substantially speed up the eradication of the disease".

Mr Hogg suggested that other member states were failing to honour their side of the Florence deal - France is restricting the import of British cosmetics, some German states are banning British dairy products and bull semen. A return to the policy of non-cooperation would however be "a last resort" he admitted.

But signs that Britain appears ready to jettison the centrepiece of its BSE eradication strategy on the basis of new forecasts impressed few. Spanish minister Loyola de Palaccio said her government wanted Britain to stick to the Florence agreement and to refer any new evidence to EU scientists, while Germany's Franz Josef Feiter warned that the situation in Germany was "explosive", with demand for beef already down by 40 per cent. Hundreds of German farmers protested in Brussels yesterday as the talks began.

Mr Yates pledged to act as honest broker but said Britain would wreck its chances of an early end to the export ban if it tried to unravel the Florence pact. "Not to honour the accelerated cull would really tell British farmers that there is no short term prospect of getting the ban lifted at all. That is not in the interests of British agriculture ."