The Beef Ban: Vet guidelines cheer British ministers

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Ministers were cheered yesterday when their efforts to gain a partial lifting of the European beef ban next week were boosted by new guidelines on beef and beef products from an international body of vets.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), including chief veterinary officers from 117 countries, yesterday released a report saying that there is no proof of any risk of mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, from trading in semen from healthy bulls, and that properly processed gelatine, collagen and tallow from cattle are harmless.

The WOAH also said that there is no reason to ban exports of British cattle or beef - as long as particular safety measures are taken. But it did support an "absolute ban" on the export of suspect organs now excluded by law from human foods in the UK. These include the brain, eyes, spinal cord, tonsils and spleen of any cow aged over six months.

Semen, gelatine, collagen and tallow are all by-products of beef processing, and the Government has been fighting hard to have the ban on their export to other European states lifted. It was the refusal last week by several EU members to allow the by-products' export which led to John Major's "non-co-operation" tactic in other EU dealings.

The EU's veterinary officers meet next Monday, and Britain will be lobbying hard to have the ban on these products lifted - a result whose significance would be political rather than financial. For Britain to win its case, France and Germany would have to agree that the products - which generate about pounds 40m of export revenues - pose no threat of BSE.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) welcomed the report, saying it was "a clear endorsement of the UK position on BSE" and"again shows that the EU export ban is entirely unjustified". MAFF also highlighted the fact that the WOAH report did not call for mass slaughter of cattle.

In a clear sign that Euro-sceptic Tories will demand substantial concessions from the EU on a "framework" for total lifting on the ban after next week, James Cran, MP for Beverley, said that the EU were trying to raise the stakes.

In a warning to Mr Major not to let up on his policy of non-cooperation with EU business, Mr Cran added: "The secret is that the Prime Minister must not blink. And I do not think he will. We have got to fight our corner. There is no way back."

The WOAH, which met last week in Paris, qualified its findings by saying that its guidelines applied only to animals born after the date when the ban on using animal meat and bone meal in cattle feed was "effectively respected". However, the exact timing of this date is unclear.

This could mean that British efforts to get a full lifting of the ban will be applied only to very young animals - which would probably not be exported anyway.