As tempers rise, a dispassionate guide to this battle over beef

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Indy Politics

British beef is safe, the EU says. So what are the French fretting about?

British beef is safe, the EU says. So what are the French fretting about?

The French are worried that the number of cases of BSE in British herds is not falling fast enough. There will be more than 2,000 new cases in Britain this year. They say that because the incubation period for mad cow disease is five years, the ban should not be lifted until 2001 - five years after giving contaminated feed to cattle was made a criminal offence in the UK.

Do our scientists disagree?

They say the numbers of new cases this year are well within expectations. They also say French worries are irrelevant because the only beef allowed for export from Britain under EU approved schemes is too young to have been fed on the contaminated feed which is believed to be the source of BSE.

Do the French have a point?

Although the falling cases of BSE indicate a clear and unambiguous end to the epidemic, they do not show that it is declining quite as rapidly as some scientists predicted, giving the French further ammunition.

Is British beef now totally safe from BSE?

As safe as can be expected. Britain has the toughest anti-BSE measures in the world, but this is because we are the country with the biggest BSE problem. Cattle over 30 months old are not slaughtered for meat; those under that age have all potentially infected offal removed and destroyed and there is now a strictly enforced ban on the sale of cattle feed made from the rendered carcasses - the route which spread BSE to epidemic proportions.

Who are the faceless EU scientists?

The 16 men who sit on the Scientific Steering Committee are barely household names. They are there by dint of their academic prowess not their charisma and most take rather uneasily to the full glare of publicity. Eight won appointment after answering advertisements.The rest are chairs of specialist scientific committees in Brussels

But are they really independent?

They are meant to be. Governments have no role in appointing them. Among the random mix of nationalities are four Britons, two Frenchmen, two Dutchmen, two Germans, a Swede, one Dane, an Irishman, and a Belgian.

Can they really be objective on this issue?

In theory, yes. In practice, there are all sorts of pressures they may come under. If the 16-strong scientific steering committee has just two members that vote against lifting the export ban, and both of these people are the two French members, then questions about impartiality will no doubt be raised.

Are their findings binding?

The nightmare for Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, is an outcome in which the scientists are split, or if their conclusions are vague. Legal action against France needs the backing of a majority of Commissioners.

What happens if the French lose, but maintain their ban?

They could in theory be fined thousands of pounds a day, although this would involve Brussels taking the French government to the European Court and winning the case. a process that would take years.

Are the scientists also asking why the French feed sewage to their livestock?

Actually no. It is only looking at the 600 pages of French "evidence" on BSE in Britain.

Do French farmers really feed this stuff to their animals?

Not knowingly and certainly not in the quantities that you would imagine from reading the Daily Mail. The Commission has discovered that rendering plants in France have churned quantities of sewage sludge from the plants' own toilets and showers into the ingredients for livestock feed. The practice is illegal and has been stopped, say the French.

Have British farmers ever done anything like this?

According to some industry sources, human and animal waste was used to make animal feed rations in Britain about 25 years ago.

Poultry waste remains an authorised feed ingredient in the UK, and it was extensively used until about a decade ago. As recently as 1996 British feed manufacturers were still using feathers and animal blood to make livestock foodstuff.

They only stopped when the supermarkets and consumer groups protested. Beef farmers in America still mix chicken manure and wood shavings in their feed.

Why do British scientific advisers said that that eating French meat from animals fed on sewage is safe?

They do not conclude it is safe, as such, just that it poses "no immediate risks" to human health. They have concluded that the chances of anything nasty - microbes or chemicals - surviving the heat treatments involved and finding their way into the meat itself are too remote to warrant a ban on French meat imports.

Is BSE solely a British problem?

No. Most countries in Europe have had cases of BSE, either in animals imported from Britain or in home-bred cattle fed on contaminated feed. Britain has had more BSE than every other country put together, but the epidemic is in decline here, whereas it might just be beginning in the cattle of countries such as Ireland, Portugal and indeed France.