New cattle cull `political gesture' to ease embargo

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The Independent Online
There was still no early lifting of the ban on British beef exports in sight last night in spite of the Government's U-turn on the introduction of a selective cull of more than 100,000 cattle, costing pounds 150m.

Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, told MPs that the additional cull was ordered by the Cabinet as a political gesture to persuade Britain's European partners to allow a lifting of the ban, but no timetable for easing the ban has been given.

"BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] will die out from the national herd around 2001 naturally. The cull will not reinforce animal safety. The justification for the cull is that unless we carry out the cull, we are not going to get progress on the lifting of the ban. That is a political fact and not a scientific fact," he said.

Mr Hogg will tell his European counterparts today that Britain has now met the five pre-conditions laid down in the Florence agreement which Britain signed up to last June: it has set up a computerised cattle tracing system and brought in cattle "passports", while the possession of contaminated cattle feed has been criminalised and more than 1 million cattle over 30 months old have been slaughtered.

Mr Hogg will submit plans to European agriculture ministers for a certified herd scheme as the first step to relaxing the ban. As a second, confidence- building measure, the selective cull of animals judged most at risk from BSE will begin in January, but tracing the cattle could delay completion for six months. Because of rows within the industry, the slaughter will be done by open tender.

Franz Fischler, the European Agriculture Commissioner, poured cold water yesterday on hopes for any immediate easing of the ban on British beef. The additional cull, he said, was one of the preconditions of the Florence agreement. That framework committed the Government to implementing a sweeping BSE eradication programme in return for a phased lifting of the embargo.

"I think we need to move forward step by step as agreed," Mr Fischler said.

The commission was still waiting for Britain to submit its proposals for securing the removal of the ban on beef from herds certified BSE-free. This is the first phase of a return to normal trade envisaged under the Florence deal.

However, Britain's blueprint for meeting the EU conditions would then have to be evaluated by two expert veterinary committees before the commission could decide whether or not to allow exports of meat from these special grass-fed herds, a bureaucratic procedure which could take several weeks at least. Member states are in any case expected to react cautiously, with the Germans likely to argue that BSE must be fully eradicated in Britain before any lifting of the trade ban.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, accused John Major of "serial incompetence" over his handling of the crisis.

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, said Mr Hogg's "total mishandling of the BSE crisis has inflicted enormous and unnecessary additional damage on the economy of this country".

The total cost of the cull of all cattle aged over 30 months, which may contain BSE, has cost over pounds 2bn.

t A 19-year-old woman, of Carlisle, Cumbria, was confirmed yesterday as the latest victim of the "new variant" of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), thought to be caused by exposure to BSE-infected meat products.

Victoria Lowther died four months after first showing signs of the new strain of CJD. According to the Department of Health, there have been 14 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom - 10 have occurred this year.