Judges reject British move to ease beef ban

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A GOVERNMENT attempt to have the world-wide ban on British beef exports declared illegal was rejected yesterday by the European Court in Luxembourg.

The judges said the European Commission did not exceed its powers when it banned exports of British beef, not just to the rest of the European Union but throughout the world. The ban was imposed in March, 1996, in response to growing fears over the spread of BSE.

The Government lodged an immediate complaint that Eurocrats and other EU governments were acting politically and economically, to fend off a public backlash which could hit beef sales in the other member states. It also argued that the Commission had no right to interfere in Britain's trade with countries beyond the EU. The case was adopted by the Labour government after its victory in last year's election.

Yesterday, however, the judges backed the Commission's claim that it was only taking steps sufficient to contain the spread of mad cow disease by preventing British beef which might be exported to non-EU countries re-entering the EU.

The judgment, which comes shortly after an agreement between EU governments to start easing the trade blockade, backs the Commission's right to use its powers to intervene rapidly to prevent a disease which affects animals or threatens human health.

The ban was triggered by fresh information provided on 20 March 1996 by an independent scientific body set up to advise the British government, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac).

The committee confirmed that "the most likely explanation" for the appearance of a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - an incurable encephalopathy affecting humans - was exposure to BSE.

The judges said: "The new information significantly altered the perception of the risk which BSE represented for human health, and thus authorised the Commission to adopt safeguard measures."

They added that the Commission was empowered to immobilise and contain animals and animal products within a specified territory as "an appropriate measure" in the event of disease threatening a serious hazard to animals or humans.

"In order for such containment to be effective, it is necessary to impose a total ban on the movement of animals and products outside the frontiers of the member state concerned, thereby affecting exports to third countries, furthermore those directives do not expressly preclude the commission from banning exports to third countries."

The court said that bearing in mind the probable link between BSE and CJD, and uncertainty about the effectiveness of anti-BSE measures adopted by the UK and the rest of the EU, the Commission did not exceed the bounds of its discretion.

Before the ban was imposed Britain exported beef worth more than pounds 520m a year, with about pounds 450m going to other EU member states. In addition, more than 400,000 live calves a year were exported for veal production on the Continent.

The ban remains firmly in place except for certain types of beef from Northern Ireland.

The National Farmers' Union, which backed the Government's case, said it was disappointed by the ruling but pledged to maintain vigorous efforts to get the ban lifted soon.

The Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman, Charles Kennedy, said: "This is obviously a disappointing, if not unexpected ruling."