Meat ban threat to Continent

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The Independent Online
Britain could unilaterally ban European beef and lamb imports if EU partners refuse to clean up their abattoirs, at a meeting in Brussels today.

Franz Fischler, the EU Farming Commissioner, will plead with agriculture ministers to approve rigorous anti-BSE rules, already imposed by Britain, to remove all "risky" material from cattle and sheep, such as brain and spinal cord.

The proposal was rejected as superfluous and expensive when first tabled last December, and it was again narrowly voted down last Wednesday.

But Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, argues that what is good for the health and safety of British meat should also be required for Continental products.

If the vote goes against him today, he will ask Parliament to introduce unilateral measures.

Under complex EU voting rules, the European Commission can, and will, force through the measure unless eight ministers vote against it today. Up to last night, eight countries - Germany Austria Greece Belgium Finland Italy Denmark and Portugal - were still opposing, but diplomats said they would not be surprised to see one, possibly Portugal, switch sides.

Opposing governments remain adamant that they should not be forced to overhaul their abattoirs when the incidence of BSE and scrapie is very low outside the UK. Many are angry at what they see as the Commission bowing to strong-arm tactics from the country which gave Europe BSE in the first place.

Mr Fischler will remind ministers that no country is officially BSE or scrapie free, and that recent inspections revealed alarmingly lax controls. "We would expect member states to back something which errs on the side of caution," said a spokesman.