The Europe Debate: Farms with suspect feed to be fined

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday announced that it would make it a criminal offence for British farms to possess the suspect animal feed which could spread bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in a detailed dossier setting out its "programme to eradicate BSE in the United Kingdom".

Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, was given a cool welcome when he presented the programme to European Union farm ministers in Luxembourg. Most of it reviews action already announced, and it seems unlikely to persuade the EU to go further than today's expected lifting of the ban on exports from Britain of the beef derivatives, gelatine, tallow and bull semen. The document claims: "Britain now has tougher controls against BSE than any other country in the world."

Under the programme, farmers will have to clear remaining stocks of all feedstuffs containing meat and bone meal by the end of July - and then face fines if stocks which have been identified as the root cause of the crisis are found on their premises.

The dossier says that the Government is paying for a "recall" scheme in the next two months to clear the last remaining supplies of the animal protein feed which was banned for cattle in 1989, but only banned for feeding to pigs and poultry in March this year.

It is now believed that cross-contamination in feedmills where the same machines are used for processing meal for cattle and for other farm animals is to blame for nearly 27,000 cases of BSE which have broken out since the ban was introduced for cattle.

"After the recovery of all meat and bone meal from mills and farms during June and July, its possession will be a criminal act," Mr Hogg said as the talks began.

The document also sets out the details of the Government's plan for selective culling of up to 80,000 extra cattle "which can be identified as at particularly high risk of BSE".

It estimates that this will have a dramatic effect on the number of cases of the disease reported this year. It had expected a fall of 40 per cent from the 14,000 cases in 1995 to 8,400 cases this year, but it says the selective slaughter policy "should bring the number of cases predicted for 1996 down by between 15 and 30 per cent on top of the 40 per cent reduction".

The document says Britain will start to introduce "animal passports" next month, along with new rules for "registering and tightly controlling" specialist beef herds with "a long record of freedom from BSE". This offers hope for organic farmers and smaller upmarket herds which have always been BSE-free.

The dossier does not set out the Government's plans for a "framework" for the phased lifting of the ban - the subject of a separate document not made public yesterday.

The public document sets out the Government's three main goals: "Above all, it wishes to protect consumers against any risk, however remote, that BSE may be transferred to Man. It seeks to eliminate BSE in the UK cattle herd. And it aims to prevent the transfer of BSE to any other animal species."

In return for the measures outlined in the dossier to achieve these goals, the document sets out "What Britain expects from its European Union partners". It urges member states to remember the EU's "fundamental principle" of free trade, and continues: "As the United Kingdom works to eradicate BSE by bringing in animal passports and other controls, it expects its efforts to be reflected in early moves to a phased lifting of the EU's ban on beef and beef by- products."