Removal of beef boycott `closer'

BSE crisis: Hogg talks with Fischler raise hopes of relaxation of European ban
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The Independent Online
Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, yesterday held out the hope that Europe's ban on British beef would be relaxed next week.

Mr Hogg met the Franz Fischler, the European farm commissioner, for two-and-a-half hours of talks on a selective slaughter policy and despite the absence of any obvious agreement appeared confident a deal paving the way for a phased removal of the boycott could be closer.

"The Council is likely to move to support a relaxation of the ban against the background of the steps we have taken," Mr Hogg said after the meeting. He said yesterday's talks had focused on "concepts and principles" rather than numbers to be slaughtered. However, EU sources said Mr Fischler was disappointed that with just five days before the deadline set by EU ministers last month, Britain has still not submitted a comprehensive and politically convincing BSE eradication strategy to the European Commission.

"He [Mr Fischler] would like to have seen a bit more" one senior official said. The Commission will have to examine detailed proposals on slaughter and eradication before recommending acceptance by ministers who are due to meet in Luxembourg next Monday, but plans for the slaughter of 42 000 cattle were described as "minimalist" by some officials.

Mr Fischler remained cautious after the meeting saying his concern was less the numbers of animals to be destroyed than a clear strategy for urgently reducing the incidence of BSE in British herds. "As to a specific proposal in writing, we are still waiting for that" he said.

He also stressed that the onus was on Britain to convince its EU partners that controls and curbs are being strictly enforced on the ground. A team of EU inspectors is currently in the United Kingdom and will be reporting back on its findings by the end of the week.

Despite the obstacles the tone of yesterday's meeting appears to have been more conciliatory, with a determined effort on Mr Hogg's part to lower the temperature. According to one source, Mr Hogg reassured Mr Fischler over reports that Britain might be considering trade reprisals.

The prospect of exemptions from the ban as a possible first step towards normalisation of trade was raised yesterday and Mr Hogg said he wanted to see grass-fed cattle - thought least susceptible to infection - exempted from compulsory slaughter. "We have explored the possibility of devising a system of exemptions to the 30-month rule. There is real merit in that," he added.

However, the Government is unlikely to press to get the ban lifted in Scotland and Northern Ireland even though the Commission has already said it could go along with that approach.

Animal welfare campaigners yesterday pledged to picket abattoirs where thousands of dairy calves, less than 10 days old, will be slaughtered as part of the emergency controls introduced against mad cow disease. The cull is likely to begin tomorrow in 79 approved slaughter houses.

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