Blair acts as food war flares up

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Tony Blair appealed directly to his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, to end the ban on British beef last night as tempers in the Anglo-French food war flared on both sides of the Channel.

Tony Blair appealed directly to his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, to end the ban on British beef last night as tempers in the Anglo-French food war flared on both sides of the Channel.

The Prime Minister's intervention came as farmers temporarily blockaded the Channel Tunnel at Calais and the leader of the French farmers' union warned his members could mount a "blockade" of Britain if UK consumer boycotts turned into a complete rejection of French food.

Mr Blair told Mr Jospin the French ban is illegal but that he was also stepping in to prevent a spiralling political crisis before a crucial meeting of EU scientists in Brussels tomorrow. "The Prime Minister believesa tit-for-tat trade war would not be in our interests and not in France's interests and the French have got to understand how angry people feel about it," Mr Blair's spokesman said.

Earlier Luc Guyau, the president of the federation of French farm unions, said: "If Britain ... boycotts all agricultural and food products from France I would simply say one thing; Britain is an island and an island is easier to block than a continent." A group of French farmers - about 20 tractors and 100 protesters in all - briefly blocked the road exit from the Channel Tunnel last night. They said it was a "symbolic" action, to express their anger at British boycotts.

The Government continued yesterday to resist demands for a retaliatory ban on French meat after the disclosure that French animal feed contained processed human sewage.

The Conservative leader, William Hague, called for an immediate ban on French chicken and pork. "I don't know how many scientists you need to tell you that eating food that has been prepared in this way is not a good idea," he said. "Now our ministers are in the ludicrous position of saying that it's safe to eat meat from other countries but it's not safe to eat our own beef on the bone. They don't need a scientist, they need a psychiatrist."

Ministers pointed to the advice from their own scientific advisers that although the French practice is "repugnant to consumers and illegal under Community law" there is "no immediate public health risk".

But Britain's efforts to rely on legal channels to prise open the French market for British beef have run into fresh problems in Brussels where EU scientists are split over France's case for keeping a ban on British beef.

Besieged by British MEPs demanding tough action, Europe's food safety commissioner, David Byrne, pledged "action within days" if the French ban is declared unjustified by EU scientists at the meeting in Brussels.

Privately, Brussels officials admitted the divisions would make it "difficult" to sue Paris for defying the official ruling that British beef is safe. If the committee fails to reach a decision, the dispute could become even more entrenched. Austrian and Belgian scientists are understood to be sympathetic to the French stance.

The soured cross-Channel atmosphere was reflected in comments by the French Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, who took a sideswipe at the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, for making inflammatory remarks that he said had escalated a complex dispute. "At present, conditions do not exist in which I could have a calm conversation with Nick Brown," Mr Glavany said.

Mr Brown, speaking at a lunch in London where he pointedly refused to quaffFrench wine, said: "I want to get this thing settled and get back to eating French grub and drinking French wine."

Mr Glavany said he was looking for the "quickest possible exit from the crisis" and suggested - for the first time - that a "compromise" could be possible under which France would abandon its solitary embargo, in return for unspecified "conditions" on the export of British beef to the Continent.