UK farmers can export beef again

BRITISH FARMERS should be free to export beef from 1 August, marking the end of the international ban brought about by mad cow disease, and the beginning of the fight to recapture a market worth millions of pounds.

The European Commission said yesterday that it expects the formal decision to lift the blockade to be taken next week, and that some categories of British beef will finally reach continental dining tables at the beginning of next month.

The crisis has cost British exporters more than pounds 1bn and UK tax-taxpayers a further pounds 3bn.

Assuming the formalities are completed, the beef industry will pass a huge, symbolic landmark on 1 August, although the economic effects will be felt for years to come.

Sales of all British beef outside the UK were banned in March 1996 after the Government announced a possible link between mad cow disease in beef and its human equivalent Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Almost all Europe's deaths from the human strain of CJD were in Britain.

Only small quantities of high-quality British beef are likely to be exported in the short term, aimed at the catering trade rather than supermarket shelves.

The Meat and Livestock Commission already has well-developed plans for a worldwide marketing campaign to promote British beef and is expected to focus on quality breeds such as Aberdeen Angus. But broader consumer resistance to British beef is still high, particularly in Germany, where food safety is a sensitive issue.

The problems have been illustrated by the situation in Northern Ireland, which has a computer tracking system and has been permitted to export beef it could prove BSE-free for almost a year. But it has had difficulty rebuilding markets.

The export scheme for the rest of the UK also imposes strict restrictions on the type of British produce that will be available abroad. It will have to be de-boned meat from animals born after 1 August 1996 - the date when a ban on feeding meat and bonemeal to live-stock first came into effect - and aged between 6 and 30 months.

Moreover, abattoirs that want to sell to the continental market will have to be dedicated to that trade, making the economics of the export business much more problematic.

The decision to lift the ban in principle was taken by ministers last November and the Ministry of Agriculture had hoped to have it lifted by the spring. But the British Government still had to go through a number of hoops, including an inspection on the ground by EU veterinary experts.

Yesterday Gerry Kiely, spokesman for the acting agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, said that the Commission had sought and won a series of assurances on technical points.

A spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission, Ray Barrowdale, said: "As far as we are aware the inspection found no problems with the plants they visited. Initially I think four or five plants will begin exporting beef as they have to be dedicated to producing exports and that is obviously a commercial decision."

A spokesman for the National Farmers' Union added: "We are delighted that it looks like the ban will finally be lifted and we are working to ensure that British beef farmers can get their product back on the market."

The lifting of the ban will not mark the end of Europe's devastating agricultural crisis over BSE. Portugal faces another year-long export ban after an outbreak last year. The effect there has, however, been limited because most meat produced in Portugal is for domestic consumption.